Recent advances in robotic technology are offering greater functionality and freedom to people with paralysis and amputations, reports both CNN and MSNBC. MSNBC writes that advanced brain-computer interfaces that are entering human trials may allow patients with severe disabilities to control computerized devices with brain waves.
Researchers at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh are working on two devices, explains the article, one that rests on the surface of the patient’s brain to record electrical activity and another with pins that penetrate into the brain tissue. The surface device will be tested first, the article explains, as it is less invasive and may potentially be ready for the market sooner.
Similar devices that give patients power over movement of an external computer already exist, but the devices being developed at the University of Pittsburgh offer an unprecedented amount of control, says MSNBC. Such control is measured in “degrees of freedom,” the article explains – the ability to move a cursor up and down as well as side to side represents two degrees of freedom. MSNBC explains that the new technology boasts six degrees of freedom.
The implications are staggering, Michael Boninger, a professor on the project explains in the MSNBC article, predicting “that subjects are going to control prosthetic devices and other devices with multiple degrees of freedom, meaning that we’ll be able to extract really rich control signals from the brain that then will offer a huge leap in the ability of someone with significant disability like an amputation or spinal cord injury to control devices that help them become independent.”
CNN reports on another technological advance in robotic limbs. This technology integrates with the nerves of a severed limb, rather than interfacing directly with the brain, the news source explains. Doctors at the Center for Bionic Medicine at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago have worked mostly with upper-limb amputees, the article states, replacing nerves in the chest muscle with the nerves that used to control the arm. The nerves take root in the new area and can be linked up with a robotic prosthetic that can be controlled much as the limb used to be, says CNN.
Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of the Center for Bionic Medicine, explains in the CNN article that conventional prosthetic limbs are difficult to use and offer limited functionality. With this new procedure, however, patients may even be able to experience some sensation in the robotic limb, such as hot and cold or pressure and vibration, writes CNN. While this sensory function has only been implemented in six patients so far, the article reports, it represents a promising advance for people with amputations or other injuries that remove limb function.
Bryner, Michelle. (February 23, 2011). “Brainpower: Human minds may soon control prosthetic limbs.” Retrieved March 7, 2011 from MSNBC.
Landau, Elizabeth. (February 17, 2011). “Bionic arm gives hope for amputees.” Retrieved March 7, 2011 from CNN.