As we’ve repeatedly mentioned in our posts, medical science has benefited the most from the advancement in science and technology. How many of you remember Zac Vawter who managed to climb the stairs of the Willis Tower in Chicago. What was truly remarkable about this endeavor was the fact that Vawter was wearing a prosthetic leg and could actually control this prosthesis just like his real leg. The commands from brain are interpreted by EMG sensors and acted upon by the prosthetic leg. A year ago, this was a huge breakthrough in medical science since this involved a prosthetic limb that could be controlled via brain for the first time.
The prosthetic limb used by Vawter was a collaborative effort of Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), a team of designers at Vanderbilt University and prosthetics company Freedom Innovations. This limb is till today, the most advanced amongst the prosthetics that are available in the market. The improvement is basically more freedom of movement that have been provided to the user and also includes rotating ankle which allows navigating sloped terrains. As with the original, all that the user is required to do is to think about the movement. Steven Reinecke, EVP of Research and Development at Freedom Innovations, says; ‘This is where prosthetic limbs will go. Right now people have a sophisticated support system. The goal is try to mirror the natural body as much as possible.’The current setback with prosthetics is the fact that these prosthetics are basically support systems and do not mimic the original limb which they replace. However, the team at RIC has made sufficient progress in this context and has been working day and night since June 2005. The idea is to make use of nerves to let the brain control the prosthetic limb. As Dr. Levi Hargrove, one of the lead researchers at RIC, explains it; ‘This person has essentially been rewired.’ The impulses, neural in nature, are picked up by sensors and translated via computer to mimic the action that is being ordered by the brain.
Vawter used this improved prosthetic limb in April 2013 and Dr. Hargrove recalls; ‘When we said to Zac; ‘You’re in control, you can do whatever you want!’ that was kind of a surreal moment. It was an overwhelming feeling for me—and I think for him as well that this has the potential to help a lot of people.’ Military has funded an $8 million grant for this project and the high amount reflects the interest which they have in this project.
The commercial product, for patients, will be available in about 2-3 years with some fine-tuning that will result in less noise while being operated and lighter weight. Dr. Hargrove says; ‘Five years ago I thought there was no way to achieve all that we’ve achieved. I thought it would take 10 years to get to where we are right now.’