Amputees may one day regain actual feeling thanks to Darpa and researchers at Case Western University who have created what we thought was once only possible in science fiction. As a part of DARPA's Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program, CWRU's flat interface nerve electrode (FINE) system has demonstrated that it can provide enough sensation to each individual finger to give amputees the ability to feel their way around, just like Luke Skywalker.
DARPA's RE-NET program studies the longevity and viability of brain interfaces and their accompanying peripherals. What Case Western's FINE system does is provide direct sensory feedback by intertwining itself with what nerves are left intact. So instead of relying on visual feedback to make a prosthetic work or do what the amputee wants, FINE allows them to feel and touch their way around.
Alternatively, researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago have built and demonstrated a different type of interface that's visually driven. Called targeted muscle re-innervation (TMR), the nerves from amputated limbs are rewired to work with existing muscles, like the below video.
If this sounds familiar to you, you're not alone. This is basically what happened when Luke lost his hand at the end of Episode V and was fitted with a bionic hand. Amazing! DARPA says it will continue to evaluate the existing programs under RE-NET through 2016. Let's hope they find a long-term solution before then. [Darpa]