Mum hoping to improve prosthetics for her son starts brain research PhD at University of East Anglia

A PhD student has begun new scientific research looking at the potential differences in the brain between one handed and two handed people, in the hope it could help inform the design of prosthetic limbs in the future.

Hannah Browning, 30, from Brundall, Norwich has a 9-year-old son, Max, who was born without the lower part of his right arm.

"Living with Max everyday is a reminder of what prosthetics are, but also what they could be," Ms Browning exclusively told ITV News.

Max Bane-Young was born without the lower part of his right arm. Credit: Hannah Browning

The PhD student at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is researching how sensorimotor experience, or lack of, shapes object representation in the brain.

Ms Browning wants to see how objects, specifically tools like cutlery, are represented in certain brain areas and if this differs between those with two hands and people with only one hand.

"There's quite a lot of differences in the brain between people that have one and two hands that we don't necessarily think about," she said.

"Knowing these differences will hopefully inform future prosthetic design particularly brain-controlled devices."

Max Bane-Young, 9, has an NHS cosmetic prosthetic. He said: "This [showing his prosthetic arm] is how you take it off and it's pretty easy to put it back on.  They [the fingers] can't really move that much, but I'm ok with that."

Max Bane-Young uses an NHS prosthetic arm which is cosmetic and provides limited function. Credit: ITV News

Ms Browning's idea for the PhD was prompted by research carried out at the UEA by Professor Stephanie Rossit at the Wellcome-Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre.

Professor Rossit looked at the brain activity of two handed people, using an MRI scanner to record their brain activity when reaching out to touch a tool such as a spoon.

"We found that in contrary to what people thought before, the areas that are important for representing how to correctly grasp objects were the areas that actually responds to images of  hands, before it was thought that it was the areas that respond to images of tools," Professor Rossit said.

This new concept has opened up possibilities for the design of prosthetics in the future.

"What we think we might be able to do is perhaps use brain computer interfacing and place them in this visual hand area and this might help trick the brain into thinking the prosthetic is actually the real hand," he added.

The next level of research for Ms Browning's PhD is about to start at the UEA and will focus on limb difference on one side of the body.

Ms Browning said: "We're going to be looking between two handed people and one handed people, how they perceive and use tools. Things like cutlery, things that are really important to us that we use every day.

"We want to look and see what's happening in the brain when we're using them, which areas of the brain are active when we are using them and if there is a difference between two handed people and one handed people."

The research will also look at the difference between amputees and people born without the lower part of an arm.

Professor Stephanie Rossit, UEA Wellcome-Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre. Credit: ITV News

Professor Rossit said: "People who have lost a limb during their life, they've already had the experience interacting with objects so the information might already be there, where as the people who have never had that experience, they don't have this information there, so we want to investigate the differences."

Ms Browning said: "We're hoping we can bridge the gap between a real arm and a tool like prosthetic, or cosmetic prosthetic which is what Max wears."

"I'd love to make a small contribution to the limb difference community," she added.

Max Bane-Young, 9, said: "I used to go to a football club and before that I went to a rugby club.  I like to play on the ramps in the park and the spinny thing [roundabout]in the park.

"When I was eight she [my mum] was trying to learn about bodies.

"It's pretty good because scientists always know about your arms and body and stuff.  It's pretty good and she's doing a really good job.  It's awesome to learn new things."

  • Ms Browning is inviting people from the limb difference community to take part in her research.

  • Anyone with upper limb difference on one side and below the elbow is eligible.

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