Bionic arm advances provide more natural function

New research shows a prosthetic arm that’s rewired to communicate with an amputee’s brain, can restore more natural function and feeling.

“We built the system actually using an off-the-shelf prosthetic as our basis but then we put in high level computing, and we put in touch sensation, and we put in movement sensation,” said lead author Paul Marasco, PhD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute.

“So, when you look at the limb itself, it looks like any other limb but you can’t tell there’s actually a highly sophisticated computerized communication and feedback system running inside of that.”

For more than a decade, Dr. Marasco has been working on a cutting-edge prosthetic to restore natural movement, sensation and function to amputees.

It’s the first bionic arm that allows wearers to think, behave and function like able-bodied people. Results from his latest research, looking at two people with upper limb amputations, show the bionic arm allowed them to perform tasks with similar accuracy as able-bodied people.

So how does it work?

The system connects the wearer’s brain through limb nerves to the prosthetic, enabling them to move the bionic arm just by thinking about it. Then it instantly relays sensation information back to the brain about how the hand is moving and when it touches something.

“They feel as though their hands are moving, even though they don’t have a hand. And they feel as though their fingers are touching things even though they don’t have fingers,” Dr. Marasco explained. “And the interesting thing about it is that when we put all of these systems together, their brains actually feel like the hand is human.”

Dr. Marasco said more research is needed before bionic limbs become common for amputees. He plans to apply the findings of this study, to future research projects.

Complete results can be found in the journal Science Robotics.

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