Mind-Controlled Bionic Limbs Holding Promise, and the Demand is Growing say IEEE Experts  
9/1/2011 11:50:52 AM

PISCATAWAY, N.J., Sept. 1, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- The age-old fascination with machines mimicking humans has frequently manifested itself in science fiction literature and cinema, mainly because authors and directors could only wildly speculate about these "human robots" since none had been built yet. According to bionic limb experts at IEEE, the world's largest professional technical association, the distinction between science fiction and reality is increasingly becoming blurred. In fact, "bionic limbs" are now giving patients the ability to regain use of amputated limbs via prosthetics, powered by the brain itself.

Today, bionic limbs are greatly improving the quality of life for amputees through mobility assistance, which provides assistive technologies that imitate extensions of the human body structurally and neurologically. By connecting with the patient's sensory systems, the bionic limbs of tomorrow will enable completion of dexterous tasks with the familiar sensory feeling of a natural appendage.

"Recent successes in wearable limb robotics prove that technology provides an extraordinary capacity to improve quality of life for patients," said Dr. Hugh Herr, IEEE Member, associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Chief Technology Officer at iWalk. Dr. Herr and his team of researchers have invented the computer-controlled knee and the robotic ankle-foot prostheses and orthoses, which emulate the action of their biological counterparts. This topic is all too familiar to Dr. Herr as both of his legs were amputated below the knee after getting stranded on a hiking expedition in 1982. Remarkably, Dr. Herr started climbing again, using specialized prostheses that he designed. "These prostheses have helped patients recover not just their bodily movements but the quality of life they enjoyed before their need for prostheses."

Given recent advances in wearable mechanical technology, IEEE experts believe that within 15 years, doctors will be able to create a full mechanical limb that replicates the majority of natural movements. "In the very near future, we'll be able to offer patients a quality of life not currently available with present-day technology," says Dr. Herr. "As we continue to learn how to efficiently connect prostheses to the human body, both electrically and mechanically, we will expand controllability and feeling of the artificial limb."

"One of the most critical developments in creating a full mechanical limb is using sensory feedback to close the loop in control," said Dr. Todd Kuiken, IEEE Senior Member, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Center for Bionic Medicine and Director of Amputee Services at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "If you can't feel where the artificial limbs are in space, it is much more difficult to control them and, in turn, you're relying on your vision for recognition to close the loop."

The need for further developments in wearable mechanical technology remains important as the demand for prosthetics continues as the population ages at a rapid pace. "While we are seeing fewer traumatic amputations, the increase in vascular disease and diabetes among the aging population are two of the leading causes of amputation," says Dr. Kuiken. "However, as the science, technology and even materials continue to make significant strides, the options for amputees are growing."

According to Dr. Kuiken, it is groups like IEEE who play a crucial role in advancing such complex technology. "Monumental developments in science are conducted by teams, unlike in the past where advancements were made by individuals. Organizations like IEEE are integral players in encouraging the formation of these groups, and lead to innovation across sectors." One such example is the 33rd Annual International Conference of IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society being held in BostonAugust 31 September 3 which contains specific tracks showcasing the advances in wearable mechanical prosthetics and the medical benefits this technology provides both patients and society at large.

Additional IEEE resources on wearable technology include:

IEEE Spectrum video on new research looking for a way to connect prosthetics directly to the brain:

IEEE Spectrum video featuring a Q&A with Dean Kamen on his work to reinvent the prosthetic arm:

IEEE Spectrum article on the prosthetic arm giving amputees new hope by DARPA:

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