• New technology in prosthetics is allowing for controlling appendage mechanisms with brain activity.
  • While not an equivalent replacement of a lost limb, further development of the technology will bring us closer to tapping into the full potential of advanced prosthesis.
  • Scientists are working on new electronics that permit two-way communication between different parts of the nervous system and prostheses.
  • This could allow us to send brain signals to disconnected nerves in damaged limbs or to robotic prostheses in order to move them by thought.

TALKING BACK

While advances in medical technology already allow people with damaged limbs or robotic prostheses to communicate with those limbs, they haven’t yet gotten the limbs to properly talk back. That may change, thanks to the work of a team of engineers, researchers, and scientists from the University of Washington’s (UW) GRIDLab and the National Science Foundation Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE).

The team is creating electronics that permit two-way communication between different parts of the nervous system. This would allow a user to control their limbs using thought and also receive information from the limb, such as whether it is in the correct position or grasping an object tightly enough.

To develop this system, the researchers implanted a set of ElectroCorticoGraphic (ECoG) electrodes directly onto the surfaces of volunteer patients’ brains. They then fitted the patients with gloves equipped with sensors capable of tracking their hand positions. Patients were asked to move their hands into certain positions and would receive sensory feedback on the positioning in the form of electrical currents delivered directly to the brain through the ECoG electrodes. An open hand resulted in no stimulation, but as the hand closed, the stimulation would increase in intensity.

Credit: University of Washington/Mark Stone
Credit: University of Washington/Mark Stone

Researchers claim this is the first time a conscious patient has successfully used a system like theirs, and while their system’s stimulation doesn’t mimic natural “feel,” it’s a start. “Right now we’re using very primitive kinds of codes where we’re changing only frequency or intensity of the stimulation, but eventually it might be more like a symphony,” Rajesh Rao, CSNE director, told News Atlas.

A HELPING HAND

“The idea is that we’re able to translate thoughts into motion,” says Mike McLaughlin of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the creators of the Modular Prosthetic Limb. Hopkins is one of the engineering initiatives that have recently brought advancements in prosthetics and bionic limbs, improving comfort and utility for upper-arm amputees.

Studies from biomedical engineers from Bloorview Research Institute have revealed the inefficiency of market-available prosthetic arms, indicating that up to 75% of users reject and abandon their reconstructed limbs. Most arms available rely on controls developed in the 1950s; they had clunky cables, harnesses. The sensors used were just not intuitive enough for comfortable use.

In 2013, Coapt introduced a prosthetic arm enhanced with an new control system that can recognize subtle nerve signals. Coapt uses pattern recognition to decode electric signals from the remaining arm muscles, with an algorithm focused on intuitive learning to produce graceful, natural movement. DEKA Research and Development Corp. from Manchester uses the Coapt technology in their bionic arm LUKE, intelligently named after Luke Skywalker’s prosthesis in Star Wars.

Photo: Megan Scudellari
Photo: Megan Scudellari

LIMITS TO OVERCOME

Still, none of these prosthesis systems work like a real hand. Pre-programmed controls are what makes the robotic extensions work. Coapt lets the user pre-program about six to eight movements for everyday use: pointing, pinching, and making a fist, to name a few.

What limits the technology is the sheer complexity of our body. “If you move your arm, there are probably 500 million neurons involved. Right now, the best we can do is see a few hundred of those neurons,” says McLaughlin.

Scientists hope that future prosthesis can let amputees regain control by tapping into the brain’s symphony directly, by implanting electrodes under the skin or even directly into the brain. It’s easy to take for granted our automatic, well-organized machine of a body—a simple wave hello or a handshake greeting is nearly thoughtless action. Someday soon, technology may let us overcome these physical limitations.

THE FUTURE OF FEELING

Technology like this could make a huge difference in the lives of people with lost limbs or spinal cord injuries, as even the seemingly simplest tasks can be impossible without proper sensory feedback.

Thankfully, teams all across the globe are working on ways to improve haptic feedback, from socks that grant sensation to prosthetic feet to bionic hands fitted with force sensors. As this technology advances, the line between the body you’re born with and the one built for you could eventually blur to the point of seamlessness.

PROSTHETIC LIMBS

Video game company Square Enix collaborated with Open Bionics to design two Deus Ex-inspired prosthetic arms. The designs are royalty-free and anyone can 3D print their own.

Video game company Square Enix and its subsidiary Eidos-Montréal teamed up with low-cost prosthetic company Open Bionics, Intel, and Razer to give amputees two Deus Ex-inspired prosthetic arm designs: the Adam Jensen Arm, based on the hero of Mankind Divided, and the Deus Ex Universe Arm.

Feast your eyes on this.

The Adam Jensen Arm is fully functional with flexing fingers and a rotating wrist, while the Deus Ex Universe arm is sharper, geometric, and more sinister-looking.

Video game-inspired prosthetics have been making a huge buzz recently, and have been giving amputees a renewed outlook on their condition.

This could be a mainstream opener for human augmentation, especially in the midst of controversies over AI– whether or not they would be a threat to humanity, or if we should try to achieve symbiosis with machines.

And the best part–these designs are royalty-free. Anyone can 3D print their own bionic arms using the designs and be a total badass.

PROSTHESIS
Human enhancement and wearable technologies, but in the field of medical prosthetics things arte changing fats. There’s a lot of work being done to make prosthetic limbs exactly like the ones they replace. This month (feb 2016) scientists reported for the first time, a patient was able to control individual robotic fingers with his mind with barely any training. Engineers at John Hopkins applied physics laboratory have been developing a decive called a modular prosthetic limb, or MPL, which is an incredibly functional robot arm. Its got a huge range of motion with joints in the shoulder, elbow, wrist, and hangs, but most importantl it can be controlled b our mind, just like a natural limb. But not YOUR mind, unless ou’ve had some very specific neural surgery. Before someone can control the arm they need to have an implant inserted or undergo a surger called “Targetred Muscle Reinnervation”. In this procedure, a surgeon re-routes the nerves that control te arm muscles to anoter muscle group. Tat wa wen a patient tinks about movignteir arm, a different set of muscles contracts, say, in the chest.This motion can be easily detected by a sensor which signals the prosthetic limb. In 2014, this surgery allowed a patient who lost both arms as a teenage to wear and control two MPLs and perform basic tasks by just THINKING about them. Though, these tasks were limited to simpleactions. The patient could move his fingers all at once to grip or ungrip something like a ball or a cup but he couldn’t control individual fingers. But the latest study released this month went a step beyond that. A man with Epilepsy was in the hospital undergoing Surgery so doctors could find out where in his brain his seizures were originating. A neurosurgeon implanted electrode sensors in the sensorimotor regions of the patient’s brain so even though the patient didn’t need a prosthetic arm, researchers working on the MPL were able to use the information from his sensors to program the device. They had hikm curl his index finger and taughht the MPL to recognize that signal as the mental instruction for ‘Curl your index finger”. Then when he thought about moving a finger, the same finger on the robotic arm moved too, thanks to the very precise electrodes in his brain. So soon amputees might be able to point, play piano, or pick their noses with robottic fingers. But motion isn’t the only important part of prosthesis, what about the sensation fo touch? Thankfully, scientists are also working on syntetic human skin. Engineers have been working on a synthetic skin for a while, creatingflexible materials that can detect things like temperature, humidity, and pressure. But this skin uses materials like carbon nanotube, which act as really good touch receptors, but ethey don’t come cheap, think thousands of dollars. But last week, scientists and engineers said they had made fully functional syntetic skin from ridiculously common fabrication tools. They used things like aluminum foil, sticky notes, and sponges to prve that they or anone could make cheap artificial skin. With the aluminum foil, they made a temperature sensor. When te aluminum heats up its atoms space themselves farther apart and te foil won’t conduct electric current as well. Which is something that can be measured by sensors. To sense humidity they uysed a post itnote. Paper is made by porous fibers of cellulose, which happened to be really good at absorbing moisture or making water molecules adhere to the surface. More humidity means more water molecules, which means a greater avbility to store and electric charge, which can also be detected by sensors. And for pressure, they sandwiched a sponge between 2 plates of aluminum foil along with a small air gap. As the thickness of this contraption changes, it also creates a change in electric charge, which can then be measured by sensors. The researchers stacked up these layers plus a few more into a tidy little square and ta-da they had a functional paper skin that performs almost as well as the way more expensive counterparts. Its not the most sophisticated tech but it shows that anone can experiment with cheaper recycled electronics and come up with someting that may someday make people’s lives better.

Prosthetics refers to; “a device, either external or implanted, that substitutes for or supplements a missing or defective part of the body.” [1]

Prosthetics or a prosthesis can take many forms, ranging from Teeth implants to artificial limbs. These may be referred to as more traditional prosthetics.

Prosthetics are seen as a key component in Transhumanism, allowing people to overcome either birth defects, injuries or wear and tear on the body.

ROBOTIC LIMBS
Robtic arms are not too far away. Arficial limbs have come a long way from since the days of pirate peglegs. Today’s prosthetics are made of state of the art materials and cutting-edge technology. Titanium, carbon fiber, and/or silicone. Tese materials are toug, lighter, and can even be designed to look lifelike. They stay on b a few different mecanisms like suspension or suction. Suspension involves some type of straps or sleeves. Scution works because the new limb may be made to perfectly fit on the remaining natural limb. Some devices can be controlled by the body in a kind of pulley system, not surprisingly called “body powered limbs”. Ohters can be controlled by switches and buttons. While materials get progressively more advanced, so does the technology. Most robotic limbs are myoelectric controlled, meaning muscles in the remaining limb naturally create electrical signals which are picked up by electrodes in the prosthettic. For the past few decades allowed patients to control their device through electrodes placed on the skin. But thats an imperfect design, moving or sweating might dislodge the electrodes, so scientists are looking toward the future. Recently a report published in the journal science translational medicine talked about a robotic arm that uses what’s called a “Branemark Titanium Implant”. Which attaches the prosthetic directly to the skeleton through a process called osseointegration. And just like it sounds, this process fuses the bone to a titanium piece which sits outside of the limb, which the robotic arm attaches to. To control the device the tech goes a step beyond the current myoelectric types. It uses “Targeted Muscle Reinnervation” or TMR to hook up the prosthetic to nerves inside the patient’s body. The process takes nerves from the amputated limb and puts them on a spare muscle like the pectoral muscle, called “the target muscle”. Once these nerves start to re-grow they can be activated by thought. Electrodes surrounding the muscle and nerves can then control the prosthetic. Sounds pretty futuristic, yet something seems to be missing, sensation of touch. Current techniques use sensory substitution to provide feedback like a buzz or vibration when the limb comes into contact with something. Resrearch presented ion the journal plastic and reconstructive surgery, researchers looked for a way to restore a patient’s ability to feel. The researchers say this would reduce the cognitive burden of relying on vision alone to navigate the environment. The robotic hand with the ability to feel would be able to take a sensation like “hot or cold” or pressure like “firm or soft” and then translate that into electrical signals. The different sensations can then create a different signal, like it could vary in strength, frequency, or duration. The researchers suggested using TMR to restore some type of sensation for the patient. Another idea is a sensory regenerative peripheral nerve interface, or sRPNI, which would directly hook up a nerve with some kind of biological interface on te prostetic, or maybe light could brighten up the future. Optogenetics might enable light waves to control nerve signalling, anting to make te electrical signalling deveices smaller and more precise. Robotic legs too are taking great leaps into te future. Researc publised in te journal Science Translational medicine explained recent advances empowered joints. It means each joint in a robotic leg can have a little motor in it, this way it detects pressure, angel, and can send that information to the central nervous system. But more than that the more advanced models can ave a neural interface that enhances integreation with the brain. This way, the legs can sense a person’s intention, like the desire to move from a flat surface to climbing stairs. Either way, the future of artificial limbs is gonna be awesome.
There have been advancements in technology that point to some pretty cool human enhancements in the not so distant future. These sorts of human augmentations are a big part of the Deus Ex series, in the original game you play as JC, an unsubtly named mesiah figure who has the potential to unite the world through the power of nanotech, also aliens and the illuminati are involved. The more recent games human revolution and mankind divided have given us an even closer look at what our potential future could be in terms of physical enhancements toward our bodies. So what does the path toward crazy augmented meatsacs look like? Like a lot of things the tech will grow out of necessity first, it will come out of our efforts to make life easier for people in need, in this case, folks who are kissing limbs will help pave the way for future enhancements in tech that could bring about a human revolution. We’re talking the iphone of arms, the hyperloop of legs. Where do we begin? In order to gcreate augmentation that works with our bodies we first have to understand how the brain controls the body parts we already have. Researchers at John Hopkins university rigged a test subject with 128 electrodes, all crammed into a piece of film the size of a credit card and slapped it on the area of the brain responsible for hand and arm movement, that’s the Posterior Parietal Cortex, this region of the brain essentially signals the intent to move and then the motor cortices actually carry oput the movement. Using a custom made computer program, the researchers read the precise signals given off by the brain when the subject moves specific fingers. This gave them a map they could use to reproduce the same signals for use in the prosthetic. But they went a step further. They created a glove with small vibrators built into the fingertips. As they buzzed each finger they took note of the areas of the brain that lit up for teach. Think of empire strikes back, where Luke’s brand new hand is getting poked to ensure he’ll retain tactile sensation. What was purely science fiction a few decades ago is starting to creep within reach. What these researchers developed was a prosthetic limb that their subject could control soley with his mind. They initially hit 76% accuracy, which might be a middling grade in school but is opretty awesome with techn like this, and then they were able to boost accuracy to 88% by grouping the pinky and ring fingers togetehr. And how often do you use those seperately anyway? There’s still several years and more money than i can count away from a finalized version of this, but it’s coming along, which is great news. While that research seems like it will be a huge step forward for amputees, giving them increased mobility and independence. Other researcherss are finding their research through organizations that would fit well in a deus ex story. Take DARPA for instance, that actually tands for defense advanced research projects agency. The military’s research branch creates high risk high reward projects to benefit the military. Anyway, their project seems like it falls a little more in line with what seriph industries might have put together in deus ex human revolution. Their prosthetic arm is controlled similaryl, by he mind, but it can also crush a human skull like a sodfa can. Their research goes beyond electrodes, actually involving a surgical procedure known as a targeted muscle reinnervation or TMR, which reassignes the nerve endings in an amputee’s arm to make them better able to use their prosthetic tech. Following TMR, the amputee then undergoes Osseointegration, another surgery that then grafts the prosthetic onto the bone of the upper arm. If this sounds like a tiny jump away from Deus ex and fully augmented humans, you’re not wrong, we’re getting there. Right now for example their arm can detect texture pressure, and temoperature but for the user to actually experience those sensations, they would require another as get theoretical surgery to implant nerve bundles in the chest and back. These bundeles would then be connected to the brain’s somatosensory cortex, i.e the region of the brain that processes sensatyion. Afte that’s wired up, all sensations can then be sent from the prosthetic to the brain. Darpa would like to avoid a ton of surgeries for amputees, which is why theyu envision someday merely requiring some sort of cap that can be worn to transmit all the necessary nerve signals to and from the limb. And its not a strech to imagine this tech eventually being used for body enhancement, not just a limb replacement for those in need. I’m not big on elective surgeries so bring on the superbrain hats.
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