Helping Hands

Amanda Kitts may have lost her arm in a car accident in 2006, but she didn’t lose her life as a mother and owner of a busy day-care center, thanks to the innovative new science behind “targeted muscle reinnervation.” The technique, pioneered by scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), allows her to control a prosthetic limb with her brain, much like a normal arm. While previous prosthetic arms have been slow, awkward and limited to a few key movements, the new technique allows unprecedented control and range of motion. What’s more, it’s quick to respond and feels natural. That’s because electrodes that control the limb are directly monitoring the nerves that once connected to the lost limb.
__ While only 30 people have been fitted with such devices so far, it’s a positive development that comes at a crucial time—both diabetes and the U.S. engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the need for useful prosthetics. Meanwhile, in the lab, researchers continue to increase their understanding of how the brain can interface directly with robotics. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have successfully taught monkeys to control robotic arms with sensors that directly connect to individual neurons in the animals’ brains. After only a few days, the monkeys (whose arms were restrained) were feeding themselves marshmallows and scratching their backs. While the technology is not approved for humans yet, it could have a revolutionary impact on both amputees and paralyzed patients. bw

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