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Mind-controlled prosthetics restores patient’s sense of touch

Former Army Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman demonstrates DARPA’s new TMR technology.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been conducting research on prosthetic limbs that are not only controlled by the brain but offer the patient direct sensory feedback with the sense of touch.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been at the forefront of innovative and highly advanced prosthetic limb technology with their Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program.  DARPA has been focusing on the development of prosthetics controlled by a unique neuromuscular interface, and not only can the devices offer advanced control but provide direct sensory feedback with the sense of touch as well.

On May 30th a Jack Judy who serves as DARPA’s program manager announced this breakthrough with agency’s RE-NET program.  Judy said that the main goal was to establish more freedom for the patients long-term viability and performance with the prosthetic devices.

“The novel peripheral interfaces developed under RE-NET are approaching the level of control demonstrated by cortical interfaces and have better biotic and abiotic performance and reliability,” Judy said in regards to the program. “Because implanting them is a lower risk and less invasive procedure, peripheral interfaces offer greater potential than penetrating cortical electrodes for near-term treatment of amputees. RE-NET program advances are already being made available to injured warfighters in clinical settings.”

Artists's concept of a TMR interface
Artists’s concept of a TMR interface.

One amazing video that was released by a team working at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago demonstrated an example of the peripheral interface called, targeted muscle re-innervation (TMR) could do.  Former Army Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman, who lost a right arm while serving in Iraq, demonstrated the new prosthetic device’s TMR technology by doing all manner of everyday tasks with apparent ease.  Some of the movements Lehman demonstrated were things such as bouncing a ball and catching it, picking up small items from a table and even catching a falling handkerchief in mid fall.

Another video demonstrated was research being conducted at Case Western Reserve University.  Their research focused on”flat interface nerve electrode” or FINE.  FINE  offers direct sensory feedback to the patient and is done by literally connect remaining nerves in the patient’s limb or limbs to the electronic prosthetic controls, which in turn sends those nerve signals back to the brain.

Artist’s concept of a flat interface nerve electrode (FINE)
Artist’s concept of a flat interface nerve electrode (FINE)

The patient in this this particular FINE demonstration video was given the task of picking up objects and then asked how hard the task was.  The patient performed many of the tasks quite easily and from behind a curtain or with some manner of obstruction as to demonstrate blind tasks, as opposed to tasks conducted with direct visual feedback.  The direct sensory feedback gave him the sense of touch, which allowed the man to pick things up without having to see them.  This in turn offered the man a more realistic task most people take for granted.  According to the patient the tasks were notably easier because he could “feel” the environment and knew how much pressure to use when picking up the item.

DARPA says that this technology will offer patients more freedom to perform more complex tasks that were previously hard to perform. For example an individual could go through a purse feeling around to find and pick out an item, or possibly reaching around in the dark to find the switch for  a bedside lamp.

DARPA noted that this research with peripheral interfaces will continue well into 2016.

Jack Taylor
Jack Taylor is an accomplished writer who works as a freelance journalist and has contributed to many award winning media agencies, which includes VRzone. Born in 1971, Taylor holds a Bachelor of Science with a focus in Journalism, graduating Magna Cum Laude. An eclectic writer, Taylor specializes in editorials, trending technologies and controversial topics such as hacktivism and government spying.

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