Bold biotech from Wits gives amputees a hand

360° of progress engineered for real, life-changing solutions

26 November 2019 - 14:22
The prosthetic hand will be created for R20,000 using 3D printing.
The prosthetic hand will be created for R20,000 using 3D printing.
Image: Supplied/Wits

Biomedical engineers at Wits have researched how brainwaves can be used to control a robotic prosthetic hand. The impact is far-reaching, as such a brain computer interface (BCI) will enable amputees and people with motor impairments to regain some hand mobility.

“In SA, stroke victims may benefit significantly from this technology,” says Abdul-Khaaliq Mohamed, lecturer and PhD candidate in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits. “Strokes afflict an estimated 132,000 South Africans a year.” 

Currently, a prosthetic hand costs about R500,000, an investment out of reach for most South Africans. Thumbs-up for this research that will use 3D-printing to create a prosthetic hand for R20,000, increasing access to such healthcare for many.


Mohamed’s Wits postgraduate research group focuses uniquely on a combination of hand movements including wrist extension, wrist flexion, finger flexion, finger extension and the tripod pinch.

“I envisage a BCI capable of controlling a robotic prosthetic hand that will enable people with motor disabilities to write, hold a glass or shake hands,” he says. “BCls can use electroencephalograms (EEGs) brainwaves to interpret human intentions from electrical signals in the brain and use these to control an external device such as a prosthetic hand, computer, or speech synthesizer.”

There is other life-changing biotech and engineering research being done at the globally ranked university, which sees more than 97% of its graduates employed within six months of graduation.

This includes visionary biotech solutions from a team led by Wits biomedical engineer, Adam Pantanowitz.

Top marks are due for a bionic hand engineered by Wits University postgraduates, who have made mobility more accessible to the 1m amputees in SA. The 3D-printed hand is light in weight and light on the pocket, as it drops the cost of this prosthetic from around R500,000 to R20,000.


Pantanowitz discovered he had a neuromuscular condition as a teenager. Since then, the lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering has researched the potential of technology to empower people with disabilities.

In February 2019, in an experiment believed to be a world first, Pantanowitz and colleagues incorporated the human brain as a computer network. Dubbed BrainConnect, the researchers connected two computers through the human brain and successfully transmitted words like “hello” and “apple”, passively, without the user being aware that a message was present.

BrainConnect links light, signal transmission, the visual cortex of the human brain, and two computers. It works by attaching a device to a person’s head, which links the two computers. “You can think of it like morse code via light signals,” says Pantanowitz. BrainConnect can decipher up to 17 symbols at a rate of four seconds per symbol.

Though BrainConnect is fledgling research, Pantanowitz says this BCI may have applications in eye-gaze devices, which allow for the control of the environment by detecting where gaze is focused.

Join one of the leading teams of postgraduate researchers at Wits University and position yourself at the top of engineering and biotech fields.

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This article was paid for by the University of the Witwatersrand.