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Award Winner 2023: Louis Muheim

Please introduce yourself. What is your background?

I’m Jonathan Muheim, a 25-year-old Swiss-Spanish engineer who grew up in the Lemanic Region between Geneva and Lausanne. I pursued a Bachelor's Degree in Microengineering at EPFL which I enjoyed for its multidisciplinarity. Indeed, I found it difficult to choose only one path among all the exciting options one has when reaching the university. Hence, Microengineering was a good tradeoff between very technical knowledge and having a broader vision of engineering. Then, I had the chance to undertake an internship in an R&D team working on the campus. It was a great experience during which I understood that what I had learned in the auditorium in the last years could be used to build innovative technologies that could improve people’s lives. This pushed me to undertake a Master’s Degree in Robotics with a Minor in Neuroprosthetics at EPFL. I naturally oriented myself toward the field of neuro-engineering and had the chance to do two research projects in the labs of Prof. Stéphanie Lacour and Prof. Silvestro Micera which gave me a taste of how exciting this field can be.

You have received the SSBE award. Please briefly describe the project.

I did my Master's Thesis in the Translational Neural Engineering Lab of Prof Silvestro Micera. The goal of the project that I joined was clear: restore natural thermal sensations in upper-limb amputees. Prosthesis research had so far focused on giving back tactile sensations (like force or vibration). The big piece of information that was still missing was temperature.

My supervisors, Dr. Solaiman Shokur and Francesco Iberite found that when applying a localized cold or warm stimulus on special spots of the residual arm, amputees felt very realistic thermal sensations on their phantom hand. Building upon previous work, I developed a temperature feedback device that could bridge the sensation from the robotic hand to the missing hand. The device that we call the “MiniTouch” is composed of a temperature sensor that replicates the thermal response of the skin upon contact with objects and a thermal actuator placed on the residuum of the wearers. The device was successfully used to restore continuous temperature sensations with 9 transradial amputees and to allow them to identify different materials (Iberite et al., Science, 2023).

The MiniTouch, a device that allows amputees to feel hot and cold in their phantom hand. 2023 EPFL / Alain Herzog.

What does the SSBE award mean to you?

There was something very special about witnessing the reaction of participants feeling again temperature (some of them more than 30 years after the accident) but having the scientific relevance of the work acknowledged by the SSBE community is truly the cherry on the cake! It is a great recognition for all the time and effort put into this project and gives the extra boost of energy to face the upcoming challenges. It was also a great honor to share this work at the SBBE Annual Meeting in front of such an impressive audience.

Is this project still active? What are the goals?

Absolutely! In fact, it is even expanding. We recently showed that the MiniTouch can also be used to perceive different wetness levels since the temperature drop upon contact with a wet object is an important component to detect moisture (Ploumitsakou et al., Adv. Intel. Sys., 2024). In another study, we modified a commercial prosthesis to integrate the MiniTouch and ran convincing functional tests with one participant (Muheim et al., Med, 2024).

In general, participants in our studies were interested in detecting different temperatures, materials or moisture levels but what really raised their excitement was the possibility of feeling someone’s heat and socially connecting to others. This is where we are heading now. The next step is to have amputees use the technology over long periods to study the functional, social, and clinical effects on the daily lives of amputees. The device that we developed also opens interesting opportunities to study more fundamentally thermal sensations in healthy individuals and other clinical populations.

Did the award have an impact on your career?

Definitely! It participated in giving visibility to the project which brought the attention of many students and other research groups with thrilling collaboration perspectives. Overall, the growing scientific interest in the “thermal modality” is exciting because it had been largely neglected in neuroprosthetic research despite the increasing evidence of its fundamental necessity.

What kind of work are you currently doing? How is it related to your PhD studies?

I joined the TNE lab as a PhD student working on … thermal feedback!

Neuroengineering is such an interdisciplinary field that I cannot think of a degree that teaches all the necessary background. People have different views and tools to tackle similar questions but what everyone shares is the necessity to learn from other fields. Coming from a robotics background, I quickly felt confident developing the device itself but designing and running experiments was completely new. Everyday comes with new things to learn but the best skill that EPFL taught me is … to learn.

What is special about your current work?

Every aspect of it is special. It is definitely not a “normal” work. We are trying to develop the next generation of hand prostheses that aim to be a perfect substitute for the biological arm. Building what could be widely available prosthetic technologies in the future is inseparable from studying the somatosensory system. Hence, my current work is an interesting mixture of engineering and scientific research which mutually stimulate. 

I find it remarkable that we get to be involved in every single aspect of the project. From the development of new hardware, firmware, and software to the design of experiments, data acquisition, analysis and dissemination: everything is made in the lab. The ambitious project, the completeness of the work and the brilliant and passionate team are what make this current work truly special.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years from now, I hope that I will have contributed to the field of prosthetics and helped build technologies that are meaningful to amputees. I see myself probably in the industry, building innovative technologies and bringing them to the market. Whether this is in the biomedical industry or elsewhere, I am confident that the doctoral journey helps develop skills valuable beyond one’s field of expertise.

Is there something that you would like to convey to the SSBE members?

A big thank you for the Student Award and the insightful interactions during the SSBE Annual Meeting.


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