High-tech Prosthetics

High-tech prosthetics: Out on a limb.

Advances such as telemedicine and the use of wireless devices in hospitals have become an accepted part of medical technology, but the notion of replacing limbs with computer-powered devices seems more like something out of “RoboCop” or “The $6 Million Man.”

Since as far back as the Civil War, prosthetic limbs have consisted of unwieldy lumps of wood, plastic or metal. While some advances in materials have improved comfort for amputees, prosthetics still lack the responsiveness and feel of actual limbs.

Icelandic prosthetic maker Ossur is trying to change that with its Rheo Knee. Billed as the first knee with artificial intelligence, it combines up to 15 sensors, a processor, software and a memory chip to analyze the motion of the prosthetic and learn how to move accordingly. More recently, Ossur introduced the Power Knee, which houses a motor and more sensors. The motor helps replicate some of the action of muscles that have been lost along with the limb.

Bionics industry researchers estimate the next five years will bring major advances, including mind-controlled prosthetics in which sensors are attached directly to a patient’s brain. Already, companies and universities are developing bionic feet, new cochlear implants to restore hearing to deaf people, prosthetic arms with embedded chips to control elbow and wrist movement, and hand prosthetics with artificial intelligence to control grip.

Jesse Sullivan, who lost both arms in a 2001 electrical accident, is testing technology that allows him to use his thoughts to control a bionic arm (the other is prosthetic). Dr. Todd Kuiken at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago took nerves from Sullivan’s shoulder and implanted them in his chest, where sensors translate nerve impulses into instructions for a processor in the bionic arm.

How long until bionics appendages outperform our own biological ones?

Food for thought. 🙂

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