Technology

Groundbreaking Technology Lets Amputees Control Prosthetics Like Natural Limbs

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A groundbreaking development in the world of prosthetics could revolutionize the future for people struck with misfortune of losing a limb. In fact, the new development has already done so for Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Sides. Sides lost his right forearm and wrist in a bomb explosion during his second tour in Afghanistan.

The prosethetic development is called the implantable myoelectric sensor system, or IMES. A person utilizing IMES receives a number of electrodes implanted in their body. The electrodes run from the brain to the prosthetic, where electric signals are converted into a digital format the prosthetic’s robotic motors can read.

For Sgt. Sides, these electrodes allow him to intuitively control his prosthetic hand as if it were his own. All he has to do is envision opening a door, for example, and his prosthetic hand will carry out the action just as your own hand would. Here Sgt. Sides uses the arm to open the door of his truck:

The technology was developed by a number of organizations including the Alfred E. Mann Foundation and the Uniformed Services University.

“We owe it to our injured service members and their families to not just provide state-of-the-science care today but to plan for the future as well, and we saw that there were limitations to what we had to offer,” said Dr. Paul F. Pasquina of the Uniformed Services University.

Pasquina said that researchers are elated “to have a young Marine be the first person in the world to receive this type of technology. We are extremely encouraged with the results so far.”

Speaking on Sides’ new prosthetic arm, Pasquina said “We knew if we could somehow tap into the muscles in the forearm, not only would you be able to control each of those independent movements, you'd be able to do it much more intuitively.”

Sgt. Sides’ trial with the technology has been a huge success. He can now open doors, shake hands, and press buttons intuitively -- a feat that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The trial has been such a success that another military amputee is in line to receive a similar prosthetic arm within the next month. After hearing of Sides’ success, the patient can’t wait.

“[He] is already anxious to get the surgery scheduled and get these implants,” Pasquina said.

What else is on the horizon in the world of prosthetics? Artificial limbs with feeling. Researchers in Denmark recently wired in pressure sensors that connected artificial fingers in a prosthetic to the organic nerves in a man’s upper arm. The setup allowed the man, Dennis Sorenson, to feel different textures of objects he touched with the prosthetic.

"I could feel round things and soft things and hard things," he says. "It's so amazing to feel something that you haven't been able to feel for so many years."

With say, 5-10 more years of research, it’s not hard to envision researchers combining the two technologies to create a prosthetic arm that can both move and feel intuitively. Speaking on these realistic developments, prosthetist Robert Lipschutz said “…when this becomes perfected, it will be huge.”

Sources: Department of Defense, National Geographic

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