News in Bionics: Restoring Sensation and Mobility!

TED_adrianne1It seems like I’ve writing endlessly about bionic prosthetics lately, thanks to the many breakthroughs that have been happening almost back to back. But I would be remiss if I didn’t share these latest two. In addition to showcasing some of the latest technological innovations, these stories are inspiring and show the immense potential bionic prosthetics have to change lives and help people recover from terrible tragedies.

For instance, on the TED stage this week in Vancouver, which included presentations from astronaut Chris Hadfield, NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden, and anti-corruption activist Charmiah Gooch, there was one presentation that really stole the stage. It Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a former dance instructor and a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, dancing again for the first time. And it was all thanks to a bionic limb developed by noted bionics researcher Hugh Herr. 

TED_hugh_herrAs the director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, Herr is known for his work on high-tech bionic limbs and for demonstrating new prosthetic technologies on himself. At 17, he lost both his legs in a climbing accident. After discussing the science of bionic limbs, Herr brought out Adrianne, who for the first time since her leg amputation, performed a short ballroom dancing routine.

This was made possible thanks to the help of a special kind of bionic limb that designed by Herr and his colleagues at MIT specifically for dancing. The design process took over 200 days, where the researchers studied dance, brought in dancers with biological limbs, studied how they moved, and examined the forces they applied on the dance floor. What resulted was a “dance limb” with 12 sensors, a synthetic motor system that can move the joint, and microprocessors that run the limb’s controllers.

TED_adrianne2The system is programmed so that the motor moves the limb in a way that’s appropriate for dance. As Herr explained in a briefing after his talk:

It was so new. We had never looked at something like dance. I understand her dream and emotionally related to her dream to return to dance. It’s similar to what I went through.” Herr says he’s now able to climb at a more advanced level than when he had biological legs.

Haslet-Davis’s new limb is only intended for dancing; she switches to a different bionic limb for regular walking. And while this might seem like a limitation, it in fact represents a major step in the direction of bionics that can emulate a much wider range of human motion. Eventually, Herr envisions a day when bionic limbs can switch modes for different activities, allowing a person to perform a range of different tasks – walking, running, dancing, athletic activity – without having to change prosthetics.

TED_adrianneIn the past, Herr’s work has been criticized by advocates who argue that bionic limbs are a waste of time when many people don’t even have access to basic wheelchairs. He argues, however, that bionic limbs–which can cost as much as a nice car–ultimately reduce health care costs. For starters, they allow people to return to their jobs quickly, Herr said, thus avoiding workers’ compensation costs.

They can also prevent injuries resulting from prosthetics that don’t emulate normal function as effectively as high-tech limbs. And given the fact that the technology is becoming more widespread and additive manufacturing is leading to lower production costs, there may yet come a day when a bionic prosthetic is not beyond the means of the average person. Needless to say, both Adrianne and the crowd were moved to tears by the moving and inspiring display!

bionic_hand_MIT1Next, there’s the inspiring story of Igor Spectic, a man who lost his right arm three years ago in a workplace accident. Like most people forced to live with the loss of a limb, he quickly came to understand the limitations of prosthetics. While they do restore some degree of ability, the fact that they cannot convey sensation means that the wearers are often unaware when they have dropped or crushed something.

Now, Spectic is one of several people taking part in early trials at Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where researchers from Case Western Reserve University are working on prosthetics that offer sensation as well as ability. In a basement lab, the trials consist of connecting his limb to a prosthetic hand, one that is rigged with force sensors that are plugged into 20 wires protruding from his upper right arm.

bionic_hand_MITThese wires lead to three surgically implanted interfaces, seven millimeters long, with as many as eight electrodes apiece encased in a polymer, that surround three major nerves in Spetic’s forearm. Meanwhile, a nondescript white box of custom electronics does the job of translating information from the sensors on Spetic’s prosthesis into a series of electrical pulses that the interfaces can translate into sensations.

According to the trial’s leader, Dustin Tyler – a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University and an expert in neural interfaces – this technology is “20 years in the making”. As of this past February, the implants had been in place and performing well in tests for more than a year and a half. Tyler’s group, drawing on years of neuroscience research on the signaling mechanisms that underlie sensation, has developed a library of patterns of electrical pulses to send to the arm nerves, varied in strength and timing.

bionic_hand_MIT2Spetic says that these different stimulus patterns produce distinct and realistic feelings in 20 spots on his prosthetic hand and fingers. The sensations include pressing on a ball bearing, pressing on the tip of a pen, brushing against a cotton ball, and touching sandpaper. During the first day of tests, Spetic noticed a surprising side effect: his phantom fist felt open, and after several months the phantom pain was “95 percent gone”.

To test the hand’s ability to provide sensory feedback, and hence aid the user in performing complex tasks, Spetic and other trial candidates were tasked with picking up small blocks that were attached to a table with magnets, as well as handling and removing the stems from a bowl of cherries. With sensation restored, he was able to pick up cherries and remove stems 93 percent of the time without crushing them, even blindfolded.

bionic_hand_MIT_demoWhile impressive, Tyler estimates that completing the pilot study, refining stimulation methods, and launching full clinical trials is likely to take 10 years. He is also finishing development of an implantable electronic device to deliver stimuli so that the technology can make it beyond the lab and into a household setting. Last, he is working with manufacturers of prostheses to integrate force sensors and force processing technology directly into future versions of the devices.

As for Spetic, he has drawn quite a bit of inspiration from the trials and claims that they have left him thinking wistfully about what the future might bring. As he put it, he feels:

…blessed to know these people and be a part of this. It would be nice to know I can pick up an object without having to look at it, or I can hold my wife’s hand and walk down the street, knowing I have a hold of her. Maybe all of this will help the next person.

bionic-handThis represents merely one of several successful attempts to merge the technology of nerve stimulation in with nerve control, leading to bionic limbs that not only obey user’s commands, but provide sensory feedback at the same time. Given a few more decades of testing and development, we will most certainly be looking at an age where bionic limbs that are virtually indistiguishable from the real thing exist and are readily available.

And in the meantime, enjoy this news story of Adrianne Haslet-Davis performing her ballroom dance routine at TED. I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring!


Sources: fastcoexist.com, technologyreview.com, blog.ted.com

Biomedical Breakthroughs: Bionerves and Restored Sensation

restoring_mobilityThese days, advances in prosthetic devices, bionic limbs and exoskeletons continue to advance and amaze. Not only are doctors and medical researchers able to restore mobility and sensation to patients suffering from missing limbs, they are now crossing a threshold where they are able to restore these abilities and faculties to patients suffering from partial or total paralysis.

This should come as no surprise, seeing as how the latest biomedical advances – which involve controlling robotic limbs with brain-computer interfacing – offer a very obvious solution for paralyzed individuals. In their case, no robotic limbs or bionic attachments are necessary to restore ambulatory motion since these were not lost. Instead, what is needed is to restore motor control to compensate for the severed nerves.

braingate1Thanks to researchers working at Case Western University in Ohio, a way forward is being proposed. Here, a biomedical team is gearing up to combine the Braingate cortical chip, developed at Brown University, with their own Functional Electric Stimulation (FES) platform. Through this combination, they hope to remove robots from the equation entirely and go right to the source.

It has long been known that electrical stimulation can directly control muscles, but attempts to do this in the past artificially has often been inaccurate (and therefore painful and potentially damaging) to the patient. Stimulating the nerves directly using precisely positioned arrays is a much better approach, something that another team at Case Western recently demonstrated thought their “nerve cuff electrode”.

cuff-electrodeThis electrode is a direct stimulation device that is small enough to be placed around small segments of nerve. The Western team used the cuff to provide an interface for sending data from sensors in the hand back to the brain using sensory nerves in the arm. With FES, the same kind of cuff electrode can also be used to stimulate nerves going the other direction, in other words, to the muscles.

The difficulty in such a scheme, is that even if the motor nerves can be physically separated from the sensory nerves and traced to specific muscles, the exact stimulation sequences needed to make a proper movement are hard to find. To achieve this, another group at Case Western has developed a detailed simulation of how different muscles work together to control the arm and hand.

braingate2-img_assist_custom-500x288Their model consists of 138 muscle elements distributed over 29 muscles, which act on 11 joints. The operational procedure is for the patient to watch the image of the virtual arm while they naturally generate neural commands that the BrainGate chip picks up to move the arm. In practice, this means trying to make the virtual arm touch a red spot to make it turn green.

Currently in clinical trials, the Braingate2 chip is being developed with the hope of not only stimulating muscles, but generating the same kinds of feedback and interaction that real muscle movement creates. The eventual plan is that the patient and the control algorithm will learn together in tandem so that a training screen will not be needed at all and a patient will be able to move on their own without calibrating the device.

bionic-handBut at the same time, biotech enhancements that are restoring sensation to amputee victims are also improving apace. Consider the bionic hand developed by Silvestro Micerna of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. Unlike previous bionic hands, which rely on electrodes to receive nerve signals to control the hand’s movement, his device sends electronic signals back to simulate the feeling of touch.

Back in February of 2013, Micerna and his research team began testing their bionic hand, and began clinical trials on a volunteer just last month. Their volunteer, a man named Dennis Aabo Sørensen from Denmark, lost his arm in a car accident nine years ago, and has since become the first amputee to experience artificially-induced sensation in real-time.

prosthetic_originalIn a laboratory setting wearing a blindfold and earplugs, Sørensen was able to detect how strongly he was grasping, as well as the shape and consistency of different objects he picked up with his prosthetic. Afterwards, Sørensen described the experience to reporters, saying:

The sensory feedback was incredible. I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years. When I held an object, I could feel if it was soft or hard, round or square.

The next step will involve miniaturizing the sensory feedback electronics for a portable prosthetic, as well as fine-tuning the sensory technology for better touch resolution and increased awareness about the movement of fingers. They will also need to assess how long the electrodes can remain implanted and functional in the patient’s nervous system, though Micerna’s team is confident that they would last for many years.

bionic-hand-trialMicerna and his team were also quick to point out that Sørensen’s psychological strength was a major asset in the clinical trial. Not only has he been forced to adapt to the loss of his arm nine years ago, he was also extremely willing to face the challenge of having experienced touch again, but for only a short period of time. But as he himself put it:

I was more than happy to volunteer for the clinical trial, not only for myself, but to help other amputees as well… There are two ways you can view this. You can sit in the corner and feel sorry for yourself. Or, you can get up and feel grateful for what you have.

The study was published in the February 5, 2014 edition of Science Translational Medicine, and represents a collaboration called Lifehand 2 between several European universities and hospitals. And although a commercially-available sensory-enhanced prosthetic may still be years away, the study provides the first step towards a fully-realizable bionic hand.

braingate_drinkassistYes, between implantable electronics that can read out brainwaves and nerve impulses, computers programs that are capable of making sense of it all, and robotic limbs that are integrated to these machines and our bodies, the future is looking very interesting indeed. In addition to restoring ambulatory motion and sensation, we could be looking at an age where there is no such thing as “permanent injury”.

And in the meantime, be sure to check out this video of Sørensen’s clinical trial with the EPFL’s bionic hand:


Sources:
extremetech.com, actu.epfl.ch, neurotechnology.com

Criminalizing Transhuman Soldiers

biosoldiersIt seems to be the trend these days. You take a predictions that was once the domain of science fiction and treat it as impending science fact. Then you recommend that before it comes to pass, we pre-emptively create some kind of legal framework or organization to deal with it once it does. Thus far, technologies which are being realized have been addressed – such as autonomous drones – but more and more, concepts and technologies which could be real any day now are making the cut.

It all began last year when the organization known as Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. It was soon followed when the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to investigate developments in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and determine if they posed a risk.

X-47BAnd most recently, just as the new year began, a report funded by the Greenwall Foundation examined the legal and ethical implications of using biologically enhanced humans on the battlefield. This report was filed in part due to advances being made in biotechnology and cybernetics, but also because of the ongoing and acknowledged efforts by the Pentagon and DARPA to develop super-soldiers.

The report, entitled “Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics, and Policy”, was written by Keith Abney, Patrick Lin and Maxwell Mehlman of California Polytechnic State University.  The group, which investigates ethical and legal issues as they pertain to the military’s effort to enhance human warfighters, received funding from the Greenwall Foundation, an organization that specializes in biomedicine and bioethics.

In a recent interview, Abney expressed the purpose of the report, emphasizing how pre-emptive measures are necessary before a trend gets out of hand:

“Too often, our society falls prey to a ‘first generation’ problem — we wait until something terrible has happened, and then hastily draw up some ill-conceived plan to fix things after the fact, often with noxious unintended consequences. As an educator, my primary role here is not to agitate for any particular political solution, but to help people think through the difficult ethical and policy issues this emerging technology will bring, preferably before something horrible happens.”

US_Army_powered_armorWhat’s more, he illustrated how measures are necessary now since projects are well-underway to develop super soldiers. These include powered exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance. These include devices like Lockheed Martin’s HULC, Raytheon’s XOS, UC Berkeley’s BLEEX, and other projects.

In addition, DARPA has numerous projects on the books designed to enhance a soldiers abilities with cybernetics and biotech. These include VR contact lenses, basic lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without a headset of glasses. There’s also their Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS), which is a computer-assisted visual aid that instantly identifies threats by augmenting their visual faculties.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90And in the cognitive realm, there are such programs as Human Assisted Neural Devices (HAND) that seeks to strengthen and restore memories and the Peak Soldier Performance (PSP) program that will  boosthuman endurance, both physical and cognitive. But of course, since post-traumtic stress disorder is a major problem, DARPA is also busy at work creating drugs and treatments that can erase memories, something which they hope will give mentally-scarred soldiers a new lease on life (and military service!)

And of course, the US is hardly alone in this regard. Every industrialized nation in the world, from the EU to East Asia, is involved in some form of Future Soldier or enhanced soldier program. And with nations like China and Russia catching up in several key areas – i.e. stealth, unmanned aerial vehicles and aeronautics – the race is on to create a soldier program that will ensure one nation has the edge.

bionic_handsBut of course, as Abney himself points out, the issue of “enhancement” is a rather subjective term. For example, medical advancements are being made all the time that seek to address disabilities and disorders and also fall into the category of “enhancement”. Such ambiguities need to be ironed out before any legal framework can be devised, hence Abney and his associates came up with the following definition:

“In the end, we argued that the best definition of an enhancement is that it’s ‘a medical or biological intervention to the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability besides what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health.”

Working from this starting point, Abney and his colleagues made the case in their report that the risk such enhancements pose over and above what is required for normal health helps explain their need for special moral consideration.

These include, but are not limited to, the issue of consent, whether or not a soldier voluntary submits to enhancement. Second, there is the issue of long-term effects and whether or not a soldier is made aware of them. Third, there is the issue of what will happen with these people if and when they retire from the services and attempt to reintegrate into normal society.

It’s complicated, and if it’s something the powers that be are determined to do, then they need to be addressed before they become a going concern. Last thing we need is a whole bunch of enhanced soldiers wandering around the countryside unable to turn off their augmented killer instincts and super-human strength. Or, at the very least, it would be good to know we have some kind of procedure in place in case they do!

What do you think of when you hear the word "super soldier"? Yeah, me too!
What do you think of when you hear the word “super soldier”? Yeah, me too!

Source: IO9.com

The Future Is Here: Bionic Hands!

Behold, the latest in bionic technology! The bebionic 3 model prosthetic hand, by the RSL Steeper company! Encased in an aluminum chassis, boasting improved electronics, a redesigned thumb, and new motors that increase the power grip, this hand was first unveiled at the American Orthotic Prosthetic Association (AOPA) Conference in Boston this past September. Since that time, amputees have been obtaining the hand and incorporating it into their daily lives. And the results are quite encouraging!

In addition to being able to do delicate work, like handle eggs and fine china without breaking them, the hand is also capable of performing a power grip that is capable of generating 31.5 pounds of force. That’s quite the Kung Fu grip, just in case you were wondering. And in “hook” mode, the hand is able to bear a load of 99 pounds. So, though it doesn’t have quite the same dexterity or free range of motion as an organic hand, the bebionic is capable of performing all the basic tasks, and is pretty powerful to boot!

Much like the bionic leg which was popularized by Zak Vawter’s historic climb last weekend, the bebionic works by reading the nerve impulses from the wearer’s arm skin. These are amplified by the arm’s electronics and translated into one of 14 possible grip configurations. These different grips are uploaded to the hands internal memory and users are able to cycle through them to determine which grip they want for which purpose. For instance, a mouse-clicking action makes the thumb grip a mouse, while the index finger clicks the left button. The “precision open grip” can be used to grab small objects and the “tripod grip” can be used to write with a pen.

Currently, and depending on its configuration, the hand costs clinical centers between $25,000 and $35,000. In time, and as it becomes available for public purchase, the price is likely to come down somewhat. Still, such a revolutionary device will not come cheap for many years to come. It also comes available in a range of colors and designs, including snow and jungle camouflage and tiger stripes, as well as realistic silicone skin coverings. See the video below for some examples.

Combined with other advances in the field of bionics and prosthetic devices, the bionic hand presents some new and very exciting possibilities. For one, technologies like ReWalk and other exoskeletons are making it possible for paraplegics to walk again, while sophisticated wheelchairs like the wheelchairbot are making stairs and obstacles passable. Coupled with bionic limbs that are giving full ambulatory motion back to amputees, we could be looking at a future where robotic enhancements can restore any and all ability to accident victims, combat veterans and people born with physical deformities.

In addition, the most audacious developments, such as bionic enhancements or robot chairs that read brain waves directly, giving full motion to quadriplegics and the ability to communicate fully to people with degenerative conditions is still yet to come! Once such technologies are readily available and commercially viable, we might even be seeing the emergence of a cybernetics industry, where people can receive enhancements that not only restore abilities, but greatly enhance them. Artificial limbs the enhance strenght and speed, artificial eyes that enhance vision and provide projected images and augmented reality displays, and even silicate implants that enhance brain function and make people smarter.

Homo Superior people… I just got goosebumps!

And while we’re waiting on all that to happen, check out this promo video for the latest bebionic model:


And here’s a video of the bebionic going through a battery grip pattern tests: