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Mind-controlled prosthesis aids amputees

09 Oct 2014

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Forget Robocop. A Swedish amputee is now considered a real-life cyborg after he became the first recipient of a brain-controlled prosthetic that interfaces directly with his bone, muscle and nerves, CNET reported.

It was in January 2013 when the patient was fitted with the prosthesis, 10 years after his right arm was amputated. A process called "osseointegration" was used to create a long-term stable fusion between the man and the machine, said Max Ortiz Catalan, lead study author and research scientist at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. (In a related news, Cybathlon 2016 to feature bionic athletes.)

Osseointegration is a method for anchoring prostheses directly to the skeleton, and it was developed in the 1960s by Professor Per-Ingvar Brånemark. He discovered that titanium is not rejected by the body but is integrated into the surrounding bone tissue. In the beginning, the method was used for titanium implants for treating tooth loss. Since then, the method has been further developed and is now used today for leg, arm and face prostheses as well as for anchoring hearing aids.

Prosthetic arm

Mind-controlled prosthetic arm using osseointegration (Source: Chalmers)

The said process enables the signals inside the body to reach the prosthesis. A neural interface captures the electrical impulses from the nerves in the arm stump, sending it to the prostheses through the titanium implant. These are then decoded by sophisticated algorithms that allow the patient to control the prosthesis using his or her own thoughts.

"Our technology helps amputees to control an artificial limb, in much the same way as their own biological hand or arm, via the person's own nerves and remaining muscles. This is a huge benefit for both the individual and to society," said Catalan.

Ever since the 1960s, amputees have been able to use prostheses controlled by electrical impulses in the muscles. Unfortunately, however, the technology for controlling these prostheses has not evolved to any great extent since then. For example, very advanced electric hand prostheses are available, but their functionality is limited because they are difficult to control.

"All movements must by pre-programmed," Catalan explained. "It's like having a Ferrari without a steering wheel. Therefore, we have developed a new bidirectional interface with the human body, together with a natural and intuitive control system."

Today's standard socket prostheses, which are attached to the body using a socket tightly fitted on the amputated stump, are uncomfortable and limiting that only 50 per cent of arm amputees are willing to use them.

"Osseointegration is vital to our success. We [used] the technology to gain permanent access to the electrodes that we [attached] directly to [the] nerves and muscles," said Catalan.

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