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Making amputees 'feel' again

For her postgraduate research degree, Leen Jabban, is researching sensory feedback for hand and arm prosthetics using non-invasive techniques.

Leen attaches a sensor to a prosthetic hand in an electronic engineering lab.
Leen is applying her knowledge of both mechanical and electrical engineering from her undergraduate degree to the world of prosthetics.
‘A PhD is a great opportunity to explore what really interests you. Through my research I want to empower patients and enhance people’s lives.’
Leen Jabban PhD in Electronic and Electrical Engineering

Originally from Abu Dhabi, Leen came to Bath to study her undergraduate degree in Integrated Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and is now pursuing a PhD. She's researching how to create a greater sense of embodiment in prosthetic arms and hands for better control. Leen hopes her work with sensory feedback systems will help reduce the high abandonment rate of upper-limb prosthesis and make life easier for the millions of people worldwide living with upper limb difference.

Developing non-invasive sensory feedback

From additively manufactured carbon fibre to artificial intelligence, the last 50 years have seen huge advancements in the prosthetics industry. Even with this fast evolving technology, there is still an incredibly high rate of people not using their prostheses. This can lead to what is known as 'overuse syndrome', when someone relies too much on their intact limb, causing wear and tear on that side of their body.

Through her user research, Leen believes there is often a disconnect between expectation and the reality of being fitted with a prosthetic arm. Prosthetic limbs can still be heavy, uncomfortable and difficult to control for their users. They can also come with a hefty price tag.

'User research and identifying user needs has been central to my PhD. A major issue with those wearing prostheses is that they receive no sensory feedback. For example, how can you pick up a coffee cup if you can't feel how tightly to grip it? I'm hoping to develop a non-invasive sensory feedback system that will enable amputees to literally "feel again". This should help to reduce prosthetic limb abandonment.'

Much previous research has focused on creating a sensation by stimulating nerves using invasive methods such as implanting electrodes in the arm to send signals. This requires surgery, which carries with it a risk of infection. For those too far away or unable to afford healthcare, this simply isn't an option. Instead, Leen is examining placing electrodes around the arm and using signals to target specific nerves.

'I aim to create a simple, cheap and non-invasive system that a user could fit themselves. I'd like my research to be available to as many people as possible, so even those in the remotest parts of the world can access technology to help them live easier and healthier lives.'

Testing nerve diagnostics

For her research, Leen is using electrodes, an Isolated Bipolar Constant Current Stimulator, and a prosthetic hand from Open Bionics.

Fulfilling a childhood dream

Leen originally wanted to be a maths teacher until the age of 13 when she saw a video of an amputee trying on a prosthetic lower limb. Seeing the joy the new limb brought to its owner inspired her to become an engineer. As an undergraduate, Leen worked on projects with sensors and spent time shadowing at a rehabilitation clinic in Abu Dhabi, as well as completing an internship at lower limb prosthesis maker Blatchford.

She took a placement year at Rolls Royce during her undergraduate degree and was offered a graduate role by the company. Thanks to the support of her PhD supervisor, Dr Ben Metcalfe, and with funding from Dr Brian Nicholson, Tony Best and the Esther Parkin Trust, Leen chose to stay at Bath to study a PhD and pursue her dream to develop prosthetics.

'When I heard about the funding I thought: "that's amazing, I can do what I've always wanted to!" I also stayed at Bath because of the community feel. It’s just comfortable and it feels like home.'

A PhD involves plenty of paper writing, attending conferences, collaborating with other researchers and companies. Leen spends her days coding and computational modelling, interviewing prosthetics users and performing literature reviews. She does this alongside her volunteering activities, many of which she started as an undergraduate, including the University's Student Women's Engineering Society (WESBath). Leen joined WESBath in her first year at University, she's held a number of committee positions including as Chair and still regularly takes part in their events, often as a speaker now.

‘Leen is an outstanding researcher who is truly passionate about her work. Sensory feedback has the potential to reduce abandonment rates, mitigate phantom limb pain, and provide a sense of embodiment and emotional connection that would be transformative.’
Dr Ben Metcalfe Lecturer in Electronic and Electrical Engineering

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