Emerging Tech

Bionic Arm Enables Neurological Control

The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago has produced a real-life bionic woman.

The RIC introduced Claudia Mitchell on Thursday, the first woman to be successfully fit with its original bionic arm technology. Three men were previously fitted with the bionic arm that weighs about six pounds and costs between US$60,000 and $75,000.

Comparisons to fantasy characters such as the Terminator or the Six Million-Dollar Man may be premature, but analysts said thousands of amputees are sure to welcome this breakthrough and others like it.

“Sometimes there’s an interesting convergence between science fiction and reality. Other times there’s no similarity,” James Cavuoto, editor of Neurotech Reports, told TechNewsWorld. “For quadriplegics, they don’t need to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. They just want to be able to comb their own hair and feed themselves again.”

Empowering Patients

The most advanced prosthesis of its kind, the RIC neuro-controlled bionic arm allows an amputee to move his or her prosthetic arm as if it is a real limb simply by thinking. The arm also empowers patients with more natural movement, greater range of motion and restores lost function.

Todd Kuiken, M.D., Ph.D., director of RIC’s Neural Engineering Center for Bionic Medicine, and a team of leading rehabilitation experts developed the technology with the support of grants from the National Institutes of Health.

“It is so rewarding for me as a physician and a scientist to lead research with the potential to positively impact the lives of amputees, including our U.S. service men and women,” said Dr. Kuiken. “On behalf of RIC, my team and I consider it a great honor to be able to serve our country and the individuals with disabilities around the world in this way.”

The Science Behind Bionics

To provide the neuro-controlled movement of RIC’s bionic arm technology, nerves located in the amputee’s shoulder, which once went to the amputated arm, are re-routed and connected to healthy muscle in the chest. This surgical process is called targeted muscle reinnervation.

The muscle reinnervation procedure allows the re-routed nerves to grow into the chest muscle and direct the signals they once sent to the amputated arm instead to the robotic arm via surface electrodes. Then, when the patient thinks about moving his or her arm, the action is carried out as voluntarily as it would be in a healthy arm allowing for smoother and easier movement of the prosthetic.

In other words, the sensation nerves to the hand have been re-routed to a patch of skin on her chest. Now when Mitchell is touched on this skin, she feels that her hand is being touched. This will eventually let her “feel” what she is touching with an artificial hand, as if she were touching it with her own hand.

More Fulfilling Life

Mitchell, of Ellicott City, Md., is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer whose left arm was severed at the scene of a motorcycle accident in 2004. After reading about Sullivan in a magazine, Mitchell undertook her own research and was put in touch with Dr. Kuiken. After an evaluation by Dr. Kuiken and his staff, she was found to be a strong candidate and successfully underwent the surgery in 2005.

Because of the bionic arm, Mitchell has been able to live a more functional and fulfilling life. She is able to give to her passion, the U.S. Marine Corps, through mentoring junior officers and making regular visits to veterans in the amputee units at the National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Through her volunteer efforts, she shares her message of personal gratitude and hope to troops who have returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Before the surgery, I doubted that I would ever be able to get my life back,” said Mitchell. “But this arm and the RIC have allowed me to return to a life that is more rewarding and active than I ever could have imagined. I am happy, confident and independent. As a military veteran, I am also hopeful that the bionic arm technology may provide benefits to amputees returning from war.”

Bionics Future in Store

To date, more than 400 amputee patients who have served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been treated in Army hospitals. RIC’s bionic arm technology has the potential to benefit amputees such as those returning from war.

In fact, much of the investment has come from the Department of Defense, according to Cavuoto. In order for bionics to help more people, however, the companies who are conducting research and commercializing these products need more investment from the private sector.

“Potential investors aren’t excited about bionics because the market isn’t that large, however it is a very promising area that will only get better as electronics mature,” Cavuoto said.

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