Thought-provoking prosthetics

 
By Marilee Griffin • Published: December 27th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat
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New research is revolutionizing upper-limb prosthetics — a technology that, for many amputees and people with limb deficiency, hasn’t advanced much since World War II.

While it’s true that motorized limbs are gaining in popularity over shoulder-powered pulley prosthetics with their hooks or hand clamps, in a few years they may all seem antiquated.

The next generation of prosthetics will combine bionics — the merging of organic and robotics — with mind control. Experts at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago are building a prototype that uses the human nervous system to operate a prosthetic limb.

First, they redirect the nerves from a patient’s arm to his chest muscles via surgery. When the patient thinks about moving his arm, the thought travels from his brain to his corresponding chest muscle, where electrodes detect the message. A computer interprets the message and turns it into movement. Simplified, the patient controls the prosthesis with his thoughts, giving the arm surprising dexterity.

Unexpectedly, the researchers discovered that this method, called targeted muscle reinnervation, also allows the wearer to feel their missing limb. By touching their chests, patients can sense pressure, temperature and texture in the prosthesis. By adding sensors to the prosthesis itself, they hope to make the sensations go both ways, thereby restoring the patient’s sense of touch.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and John Hopkins University are working on another revolutionary prosthetic prototype, this one controlled by a microchip in the brain. This technology is currently being tested, but if all goes well, these prosthetics could be on the market in a few years.

Mind-controlled robotics may sound like science fiction, but for those with amputated limbs or limb deficiency, it could be their fantasy come to life.