New Advancements Allow Owners to “Feel” Prosthetic Limbs

Many without prosthetic limbs fail to realize how difficult it can be to efficiently use a manufactured appendage. Where most of us simply take an action without much thought, utilizing a prosthetic limb requires watching and carefully moving it based on visual stimuli alone.

Currently, about 20% of patients reject their prosthetic limbs. Experts suspect solving sensation issues could reduce that percentage considerably. That is why MIT researcher Hugh Herr developed a surgical technique to let prosthetic limbs act more naturally.

How It Works

Humans use what is known as proprioception to sense their body’s position and movement within an environment. When limbs move, one muscle contracts while the other stretches, sending neurons to the brain that communicate positioning.

The researchers found that by using grafted muscle pairs, surviving nerves could be reconnected to the muscles. With the help of a microprocessor that translates nerve signals into movement,  individuals using prosthetics are able to sense their limb’s location and move it like a natural appendage.

The technology is so successful test subject Jim Ewing successfully climbed a flight of stairs without once looking at his prosthetic foot.

Past Developments

For anyone who has lost a limb, this is life-altering.

Recent technological advancements have found ways to send movement requests from the brain to a manufactured limb, but sensations were never felt. In most, electrodes respond to muscular signals in the residual limb, which then translate into movement. This was also a huge advancement, allowing users to move a prosthetic like a typical appendage.

But without proprioception, the device would feel unnatural. Users would still have to rely on visual cues about how far to move the limb or where.

With Herr’s new technology, this issue may finally be resolved.

Future Technology

Where do we go from here? Perhaps an ostensive example is in Atlas.

Atlas is a humanoid robot developed by Boston Dynamics. Last year, videos of the robot executing a perfect backflip went viral, and this year he can run, walk, climb and backflip. Even more impressive, he can navigate terrain on his own.

In response to the popular videos of Atlas and SpotMini, a dog-like robot, Elon Musk tweeted, “This is nothing. In a few years, that bot will move so fast you’ll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams . . .”

And while Atlas and SpotMini may, indeed, give viewers nightmares, they also act as a beacon of hope about the future. As technology advances, disabled individuals may one day find they can partake in activities they never thought possible.

“Currently, a disproportionate number of disabled people are unemployed,” states a Social Security attorney from the Law Offices of Ogle, Elrod, and Baril. “The advancements we’re seeing could one day reduce those numbers and increase the quality of life.”

This dream to return what was lost is what inspired Hugh Herr to contribute his life to technology. Today, he has been affectionately dubbed the Bionic Man.