New prosthetics bring cyborg closer to reality

New prosthetics bring cyborg closer to reality

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News & Events - Engineering News

February 20, 2013

Cyborgs, with often powerful and dexterous robotic components, have been a standard part of science fiction for decades. In reality, it has been a bit more of a challenge, as engineering research has struggled to create artificial limbs that can even approach the control and utility of their natural counterparts, much less surpass them.

Scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have taken a critical step along the road, however, creating the first ever prosthetic hand with a bidirectional connection to the body's nervous system.

The idea of tying in prosthetics controlled directly by the nervous system is not entirely new, though it has not progressed particularly far at this point. However, these devices lack the crucial aspect of feedback that organic body parts offer, which has contributed to the problem that roughly half of all amputees do not regularly use their prosthetics.

The EPFL team, led by Silvestro Micera, presented its results at the recent annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, showing how signals could be sent into the ulnar and median nerves in the arm and still have clear signals sent back, allowing a patient to grasp an object with a prosthesis not even attached to their body.

"We could be on the cusp of providing new and more effective clinical solutions to amputees in the next years," Micera, also a professor at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Italy, said in a statement.

Prosthetics that are capable of providing steady and comprehensive feedback could open up the potential for these devices, making it possible to give amputees a degree of dexterity that would be effectively impossible with unidirectional signals.

This is not the only major advance in bionic body parts either, with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deciding this month to allow the first ever retinal implant visual aid. The device effectively replaces damaged retinal cells with an implant that receives wireless signals from a pair of glasses sporting cameras, video processing units and a transmitter.

The device is intended for use only by patients suffering from the rare condition known as retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disorder of the eyes, and was only approved for use as a humanitarian aid. However, further development of the device could lead to a greater ability to interact with complex nerve structure, such as those found in the eye.

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