Prosthetics Research Creates Brain-Controlled Super Limb

By Wesley Fenlon

A research project gives paralysis victims and amputees a chance to regain limb function with an incredibly articulate prosthetic and a brain-computer interface.

Doom-and-gloom Skynet apocalypse references are a popular response to crazy developments in robotics, but the latest DARPA-funded advancement in prosthetics warrants the reference; it truly looks like a Terminator arm. But it's not scary like the Terminator's cold metal endoskeleton. Actually, Luke Skywalker's cyborg hand from Return of the Jedi is a better analogue--the advanced prosthetic has 27 degrees of freedom (think elbow movement, wrist movement, and articulate fingers) along with the ability to sense touch, temperature, pressure and vibration.

The John Hopkins Prosthetic Limb would be impressive all on its own with that kind of movement, but DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program goes beyond flexibility. Using a special version of the advanced prosthetic limb, study participants at the University of Pittsburgh successfully controlled a robotic arm with their minds.

In its final form, the arm will essentially be Luke Skywalker's prosthetic hand--able to move and feel like a real limb, controlled through brainpower alone. A quadriplegic participant in the study used a brain-computer interface, including tiny chips implanted in the brain, to control the arm. He gave his girlfriend a high five.

Within two years, the Pittsburg researchers hope to launch a long-term program to study the real-world use of implants and the prosthetic limb. Five participants with spinal cord injuries may prove the viability of robotic prosthetics--if successful, they'll be paving the way for amputees to touch again.

At that point, it seems the challenge will be in shrinking robotics systems down to appropriate sizes and weights for continuous daily use. We believe in you, DARPA--make it happen.

Image via John Hopkins