There have been numerous innovations in prosthetics over the years that have been able to mimic the natural movement, and provide a large boost to the quality of life of amputees and paralyzed individuals. But with over 6 million people paralyzed and 100,000 Americans living with an upper arm amputation, there is a large patient population that is paying close attention to an innovation that will yet again revolutionize the use of prosthetics.
Within the last few years, researchers announced the discovery that neural signals associated with limb movement can be de-coded by computers. These codes can be used to operate external devices, like an artificial limb. Sensors can be implanted into muscles to identify these neural signals and relay them to a computer that can move and control a limb. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, jumped on board to get this to proof-of-concept and in 2012, the first wireless neurally controlled prosthetic arm was used to take a sip of coffee, to the amazement of millions around the world. Just two years later, the device was approved by the FDA. Other research groups have demonstrated that sensors implanted into the brain itself can similarly be used to control prosthetic arms, wheelchairs, and even a full body exoskeleton.
While these new “brain-machine interfaces”, or BMIs, can significantly improve the quality of life of individuals with spinal cord injury or amputations, the overall functionality and the six-figure price tag have prevented adoption from the larger patient population. In 2015, following the President’s call for more sophisticated prosthetics in his State of the Union Address, DARPA announced it was funding further development so as to make the systems more accommodating to the general public. As a result, clinical trials are now focusing efforts on ways to make BMIs safe and effective enough to be used independently at home, instead of being limited to supervised use in a laboratory setting. Other groups are working to make systems with lower cost robotic components. Recently, there has been a sharp rise in the number of companies that are making electrodes that can capture brain signals through a headset, rather than requiring a brain implant.
In just a few years, the idea of brain-powered prosthetics went from “what if” to “when.” With more funding and companies catching on, experts believe the answer is “Now.”
Where Are They Now
Actively, work is being done to allow prosthetic fingers to move independently to restore natural hand movements in addition to the movement of the arm. Professionals have noted that it will be a few years until the technology is widely adapted and implanted. To date, only a small number of people have received myoelectric prosthesis devices, mostly under an experimental label.