We Can Rebuild Him. We Have the Technology.
We may not have quite reached the stage of "better, stronger, faster". But we do now have the technology to restore real quality of life and natural capabilities to those without limbs. there are an estimated 1.8 million people in the US alone that have lost limbs. And this a country that isn't currently war torn, one without land mines scattered across the landscape, where most of our crippling diseases are under control. Looking to the third world, you'll see even more people that could benefit from limb replacement technology. Up until recently, science's reach has exceeded it's grasp in creating an effective artificial limb. Although they have been slow to develop, newly effective bionic prosthesis are nothing short of miraculous.
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago has been quietly implementing it's Bionic Arm technology for the last few years. Created by Todd Kuiken, M.D., Ph.D. director of RIC’s Neural Engineering Center for Bionic Medicine, This new limb is head and shoulders above the rest. The myoelectric arm works by receiving the electrical signals sent by the brain and then activating small motors at the joints of the arm. Doctors at the RIC have rewired nerves meant for a flesh and blood arm to muscles in the chest. Surface electrodes are then placed against the pectoral muscle to intercept signals sent by the brain. The amputee thinks about moving the original missing limb. Muscles in the chest respond accordingly, and wires there convey the signal to the artificial arm.
Using this technique, patients are able to move and manipulate their mechanical arms and hands just like anyone else. They think about it, and it happens. The first man to get the Bionic Arm was a double amputee that barely survived a horrific electrocution. But now, with the Bionic Arm in place, and it's three motors whirring away, Jesse Sullivan has regained a great deal of both form and function. Have a look of this video of Jesse showing off his fantastic thought controlled prosthesis. Built into the arm is a 64 bit computer that translates the nerve impulses into literal motor control. It takes about six months to retrain an amputee to use the Bionic Arm as if it were their own. But as you can see the results are remarkable.
But Jesse's amazing limb is already last years model. Dr. Kuiken and his team have improved upon the original design and amputee Claudia Mitchell has been selected to test drive it. A former military service woman who lost her arm in a motorcycle accident, Claudia was seen as an ideal candidate for the newest limb. The new Bionic Arm has six motors instead of three. Twice as much articulation and the ability to do such things as lifting the arm over her head make Claudia's prosthesis peerless. And there is more to the story than just a design overhaul and some supped up servos. The nature of Claudia Mitchell's operation and augmentation are on a different order than Jesse's all together.
First off, Claudia's nerves were rewired successfully without any loss of tissue. Normaly, an operation like this would require a disfiguring removal of surface tissue to provide better reception to the electrodes. But most interesting is exactly how Claudia has been rewired. Using a new technique, the Bionic Arm is no longer just a one way interface. Doctors have rewired a softball sized patch of skin on her chest to send signals to the brain as if it were coming from a living arm. And then they wired the myoelectric arm to send feedback signals to that patch of skin. Now, Claudia can tell if she is holding something hot or cold in her completely mechanical hand. This is a first in prosthetics of any kind. Soon doctors plan to wire pressure sensors in the arm to Claudia's rewired sensory skin patch. Restoring, for the first time in history, an amputees sense of touch.
Keep in mind that the 3 million dollar Bionic Arm program is still in the experimental phase. "This is very much a prototype device. We have a lot of smoke in this lab. We fry a lot of transistors." says Dr. Kuiken. But with the success he has seen thus far, and more than 400 amputees coming back from the middle east war zone alone, it wont be long before an incarnation of the Bionic Arm becomes an every day cure to a world wide problem. Desinged for healing and not augmentation, we wont see any iron bar bending or Robocop hand shakes any time soon. But I cant help to think, with their beaming smiles and computer controlled myoelectric feedback sensing bionic limbs, that Jesse and Claudia are waving at us from the future. [via Digg]
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling - William Butler Yeats