Spinal cord victims may soon regain some of their mobility, if a device currently under development continues to perform the way its creators want it to. The robotic prosthetic limb is powered entirely by brain waves, and could enter mainstream use soon.
Prosthetic limb technology is an area of heavy interest for scientists, primarily because it has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. Paralyzed individuals, while unable to move their limbs, can still use their brains to get around, the thinking goes.
That is to say, the brain still fires electrical signals down nerves, which is how it used to move muscles. However, since damage has occurred to the nerves themselves, the signals never make it, and people lose control over the own bodies.
What the new robotic limb does is use an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine to read these electrical impulses, and then feeds the data into a computer. The latter processes the information, figures out the move the wearer wanted to make, and sends the appropriate commands to the appropriate actuators.
Scientists at the Long Beach Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in California, who are in charge of developing the innovative device, say that control can be exerted over the mechanical muscles in real time, and add that the performances of the system are bound to increase over the coming years.
LBVAMC expert An Do, the leader of the research group, explains that the investigation was originally focused on developing a way of using EEG to allow patients to move a virtual avatar on a computer screen. In the meantime, the work has moved forward, and into the real world.
The research group says that the mobility system works for both spinal cord injury patients and healthy individuals. This means that their instrument could also have military applications, enabling soldiers to march over long distance, while carrying a lot of weight.
Do reveals that, in the latest tests the team conducted, volunteers were able to master the system's controls in just 5 minutes. All test subjects had previously exercised the neural interface for 5 hours, using the computer simulation and the avatar.
The most significant development in the study was that the system did not give any false reading. “By the end of the experiment, the subject had no false alarms,” the research group said.
A 100 percent response rate brings the mobility system significantly closer to real-life implementation, the team concludes, quoted by Technology Review