The Bionic Arms Race Produces Extremely Tangible Results Print E-mail
By M.E.Garza   
Saturday, 02 May 2009 10:02

To say loss of an arm changes your life is an understatement. Tasks you once took for granted now pose a significant challenge. Prosthetic devices help, but they can be quite difficult to control, requiring unnatural movements of small chest muscles.

During a presentation during Veterans Affairs Research Week, scientists demonstrated a new bionic arm that can do everything from picking up a grape without smooshing it to tossing a ball to reaching for an item on a high shelf.

It can even be used to operate power tools.

According to a report at ArmyTimes.Com, researchers spent 30 months riffing off existing knowledge to develop a practical arm for veterans. The goals were to keep its weight to no more than that of a human arm, and to avoid making it complicated by bells and whistles that a person would be unlikely to want or use.

“Our goal was not to create a robotic arm, but to improve function,” said Army Col. Geoffrey Ling, who manages the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, which funded the project in conjunction with the Veterans Affairs Department.

In February, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) authorized the next phase of a four-year program to create prosthetic arms that can better emulate natural limbs. They will more closely match the real thing in appearance and function. And the user's ability to feel with them and control them will be vast improvements over anything currently available. The Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program is spread over 30 different organizations, including 10 universities across Canada, Europe, and the United States: the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, is working on signal processing and pattern recognition for natural arm control; the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, is working on electrodes for brain implants. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Md., is “herding the cats,” according to DARPA project manager Colonel Geoffrey Ling, ensuring that these far-flung research partners work together to make the bionic arm a near-term reality. Scientists involved say that this Manhattan Project-like system—on which DARPA has already spent US $30.4 million—is the only way to bring technology this advanced into the world by 2009.

But these arms aren't just for injured members of the military.

Scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, have developed a surgical procedure to reassign nerves that once controlled the arm and hand you lost to your pectoral muscles. By reassigning these nerves, doctors can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform. Once experimental, this innovative procedure is now available to the public.

More information on that surgical program can be found at RIC's website.

During the video, you'll see a segment which shows patient Jesse Sullivan using his prosthetic arm in an occupational therapy session. Sullivan, 61, from Dayton, TN, demonstrates advanced, multi-degree control of the DEKA Research arm at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Sullivan, who lost his arms in an electrical accident in 2001, was the first person to receive the targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) procedure in 2001. The arm was invented by DEKA Research and Development-- a company best known for its founder and

president Dean Kamen -- and for the Segway Personal Transporter he invented.

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