Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
researchers are talking with entrepreneurs about commercializing a revolutionary prosthetic limb that can be operated by a person's thoughts.
The limb uses different mechanisms for brain control, including a brain/computer interface for spinal cord patients and surface electrodes for amputees. Researchers at APL and its five partners are essentially taking technology developed for the prosthetic limb and applying it to both spinal cord patients and to amputees.
Michael McLoughlin, deputy business area executive for research and exploratory development at Laurel's APL declined to provide more information about the commercialization prospects, saying that “nothing has been signed.” McLoughlin says that preparations are underway to demonstrate the brain/computer interface on human subjects, a first as far as he knows. Plans call for working with five patients with spinal cord injuries.
“Spinal cord patients have a break in the nerves that go from the arm to the brain. They can think about moving their arm but those signals have nowhere to go. Using electrodes, we measure the signals and figure put how to move the prosthetic arm by bypassing the break,” McLoughlin says.
The development of the mechanical prosthetic limb grew out of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, a federal defense initiative that began in 2006 and has a year left to go before the project ends. The program's goal is to expand prosthetic arm options for the military's "wounded warriors." The U.S. Department of Defense has been funding the program for a total of about $100 million so far. The brain/computer interface is the final phase of the program and, McLoughlin says, data about its research has not yet been published.
APL’s research partners in the program are the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and School of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, University of Chicago, University of Utah and HDT Engineering Technologies, a private company in Ohio.
The APL-led team of researchers have developed a modular prosthetic limb whose arm and hand are controlled by surface electrodes, in the case of amputees, and by a brain/computer interface, for spinal cord patients.
For spinal cord patients, physicians at the University of Pittsburgh will implant micro-electrodes in the brain of a paralyzed patient to record neural signals that control arm movement and to determine if the prosthetic arm can be controlled by the user’s thoughts.
The electrodes are inserted in the cortex of the brain. The prosthetic arm is mounted on a pedestal. The researchers developed the brain/computer interface by enhancing chip technology and combined it with algorithms to, as McLoughlin put it, “listen to and interpret what the brain is saying it wants to do.”
Earlier this year, for the first time and in cooperation with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and Walter Reed Military Medical Center, a U.S. Army soldier who lost both legs and his left arm to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan demonstrated the use of the prosthetic limb.
The prosthetic limb was featured in the May cover story of Popular Mechanics
magazine, which called it a "smart bionic limb" and its direct neural control "the endgame of bionics."
Source: Michael McLoughlin, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Writer: Barbara Pash