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

The Future is Here: “Spiber” Silk

spider-silkFor years, scientists and researchers have been looking for a way to reproduce the strength of spider silk in the form of a synthetic material. As an organic material, spider silk is tougher than kevlar, strong as steel, lighter than carbon fiber, and can be stretched 40 percent beyond its original length without breaking. Any material that can boast the same characteristics and be massed produced would be worth its weight in gold!

Recently, a Japanese startup named Spiber has announced that it has found a way to produce the silk synthetically. Over the next two years, they intend to step up mass production and created everything from surgical materials and auto arts to bulletproof vests. And thanks to recent developments in nanoelectronics, its usages could also include soluble electronic implants, artificial blood levels and ligaments, and even antibacterial sutures.

spiber-synthetic-spider-silkSpider silk’s amazing properties are due to a protein named fibroin. In nature, proteins act as natural catalyst for most chemical reactions inside a cell and help bind cells together into tissues. Naturally, the process for creating a complex sequence of aminoacids that make up fibroin are very hard to reproduce inside a lab. Hence why scientists have been turning to genetic engineering in recent years to make it happen.

In Spiber’s case, this consisted of decoding the gene responsible for the production of fibroin in spiders and then bioengineering bacteria with recombinant DNA to produce the protein, which they then spin into their artificial silk. Using their new process, they claim to be able to engineer a new type of silk in as little as 10 days, and have already created 250 prototypes with characteristics to suit specific applications.

SpiderSilkModelNatureThey begin this process by tweaking the aminoacid sequences and gene arrangements using computer models to create artificial proteins that seek to maximize strength, flexibility and thermal stability in the final product. Then, they synthesize a fibroin-producing gene modified to produce that specific molecule.

Microbe cultures are then modified with the fibroin gene to produce the candidate molecule, which is turned into a fine powder and then spun. These bacteria feed on sugar, salt and other micronutrients and can reproduce in just 20 minutes. In fact, a single gram of the protein produces about 5.6 miles (9 km) of artificial silk.

spiber_qmonosAs part of the patent process, Spiber has named the artificial protein derived from fibroin QMONOS, from the Japanese word for spider. The substance can be turned into fiber, film, gel, sponge, powder, and nanofiber form, giving it the ability to suit a number of different applications – everything from clothing and manufacturing to nanomedicine.

Spibers says it is building a trial manufacturing research plant, aiming to produce 100 kg (220 lb) of QMONOS fiber per month by November. The pilot plant will be ready by 2015, by which time the company aims to produce 10 metric tons (22,000 lb) of silk per year.

spiber_dressAt the recent TedX talk in Tokyo, company founder Kazuhide Sekiyama unveiled Spiber’s new process by showcasing a dress made of their synthetic silk. It’s shiny blue sheen was quite dazzling and looks admittedly futuristic. Still, company spokesperson Shinya Murata admitted that it was made strictly for show and nobody tried it on.

Murata also suggested that their specialized slik could be valuable in moving toward a post-fossil-fuel future:

We use no petroleum in the production process of Qmonos. But, we know that we need to think about the use of petroleum to produce nutrient source for bacteria, electric power, etc…

Overall, Sekyama lauded the material’s strength and flexibility before the TedX audience, and claimed it could revolutionize everything from wind turbines to medical devices. All that’s needed is some more time to further manipulate the amino acid sequence to create an even lighter, stronger product. Given the expanding use for silks and its impeccable applicability, I’d say he’s correct in that belief.

In the meantime, check out the video from the TedX talk:


Sources:
gizmag.com, fastcoexist.com

The Future is Here: Batteries for Stretchable Implants

Stretchable-battery1One of the newest and greatest developments in medical technology of late has been the creation of electronics that can stretch and flex. Increasingly, scientists are developing flexible electronics like video displays and solar panels that could make their way into clothing or even bodies. But of course, some challenges remain, specifically in how to power these devices.

Thus far, researchers have been able to develop batteries that are thin and bendable, flexibility has proven more of a challenge. In addition, no stretchable batteries have thus far offered rechargeability with high the kind of storage capacity that one might expect from the lithium-ion technology now powering many smartphones, tablets, laptops and other mobile devices.

flexbatteryHowever, that may be changing thanks to two research scientists – Yonggang Huang from Northwestern University and John A. Rogers University of Illinois. Together, they have unveiled a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be stretched, twisted and bended, and is still capable of powering electronics. What’s more, the power and voltage of this battery are similar to a conventional lithium-ion battery and can be used anywhere, including the inside of the human body.

Whereas previous batteries of its type had a hard time stretching up to 100 percent of their original size, this new design is capable of stretching up to 300 percent. Huang and Rogers have indicated that this will make it ideal for powering implantable electronics that are designed for monitoring brain waves or heart activity. What’s more, it can be recharged wirelessly and has been tested up to 20 cycles of recharging with little loss in capacity.

Stretchable-batteryFor their stretchable electronic circuits, the two developed an array of tiny circuit elements connected by metal wire “pop-up bridges.” Typically, this approach works for circuits but not for a stretchable battery, where components must be packed tightly to produce a powerful enough current. Huang’s design solution is to use metal wire interconnects that are long, wavy lines, filling the small space between battery components.

In a paper published on Feb. 26, 2013 in the online journal Nature Communications, Huang described the process of creating their new design:

“We start with a lot of battery components side by side in a very small space, and we connect them with tightly packed, long wavy lines. These wires provide the flexibility. When we stretch the battery, the wavy interconnecting lines unfurl, much like yarn unspooling. And we can stretch the device a great deal and still have a working battery.”

No telling when the first stretchable electronic implant will be available for commercial use, but now that we have the battery issue worked out, its only a matter of time before hospitals and patient care services are placing them in patients to monitor their health and vitals. Combined with the latest in personal computing and wireless technology, I also imagine everyone will be able to keep a database of their health which they will share with their doctor’s office.

And be sure to check out the video of the new battery in action:

Source: neurogadget.com

The Future is Here: The Personal Fitness Band

Fitbit-FlexOf all the important new gadgets to make it to the Consumer Electronics Show this year, one stood out as far as morning joggers and fitness gurus were concerned. It’s called the Fitbit Flex, an activity tracker designed to be worn all day and monitor movement, sleep, and calories burned. In an age where electronics are getting more personal, flexible, and wearable, it seems that fitness industry is determined not to be left behind.

While the concept of a wearable fitness tracker is not entirely new, the Flex incorporates a number of new developments in the field of personalized technology. For starters, as the name suggests, its a flexible bracelet that is comfortable enough to be worn all day long and malleable enough to stay firmly wrapped around your wrist. And unlike pedometers or heart rate monitors which monitor a single vital function or activity, the Flex is designed to monitor all simultaneously and in terms of the individuals stated fitness goals.

fitbit_flex_syncAnd to top it all off, the band uses a wireless Bluetooth connection to sync with PCs and smartphones. This last aspect is something Fitbit is quite proud off, as the Flex is the first fitness band to sync using the latest Bluetooth 4.0 standard. In addition, the company has announced that it will eventually support Bluetooth syncing of fitness data with Android devices once an update becomes available, hopefully by late January or early February.

nike-fuelband-01Already, other companies have released fitness monitors similar to this new product. The Nike Fuelband is one such competitor, a flexible band that also used LED lights to indicate heart rate, distance, and overall fitness performance. It is also designed to sync up with mobile devices using the Nike+ iPod accessory. What’s more, the company claims that the band and a users Nike+ account will keep long-term track of a person’s fitness and offer incentives (such as awards badges) and motivational tips.

jawbone-upA third contender is the Jawbone Up band, another monitoring band that is even slimmer and more ergonic, as far as wearing it all day is concerned. Like it’s co-competitors, it too is syncable to an iPhone thanks to its specialized app. But unlike the others, it is designed to literally be worn 24/7, thus painting a more complete picture of a person’s health and fitness. What’s more, it has no screen, making its results only available through syncing.

All told, these bands and those like them range in cost from $100 to $269.99, and are somewhat limited in that not all are Bluetooth capable or able to link up with devices other than iPhones or unless you have an account with them (Nike+ being the big example here). But of course, that’s par for the course when it comes to competition between designers, who only want you to use their products and those they have business ties with.

All that aside, these and other products like them made a big impact at CES this year because they signaled that the fitness industry is on board with some of the latest trends and innovations. As technology continues to improve, we can expect more and more of our needs and wants to be handled by portable, wearable and (coming soon!) implantable electronics that are capable of interfacing with external computers to monitor, store and share our data.

Source: news.cnet.com, (2), (3)