The dream of replacing a lost or missing limb with a fully functional limb, has been around for centuries. Historically, a prosthesis could assist the user in achieving basic tasks, but remained a far cry from what most users would consider fully functional. In more recent years, new technology and better electronics have advanced prostheses toward what we can now visualize from the sci-fi realm; however, most of this technology still remains out of the reach of the average person needing a prosthetic, and even though they are much more functional, they still lack some of the finer functionality of a person’s own limb. Most of all, they lack the feeling – or more accurately, they aren’t connected with the nervous system, so they don’t actually work like your own limb, nor are they capable of sensory feedback.
This is exactly what Lawrence Livermore Labs, in Livermore, CA. is trying to change.
While several companies have developed advanced prosthetic limbs, Lawrence Livermore Lab is working on bridging the gap between advanced prostheses, and a user’s own nervous system, so they may once again use the limb much more naturally. The program is referred to as HAPTIX.
The project is being funded by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), in their quest to help address the growing number of active duty and veterans of America’s armed forces, who have lost limbs in the course of duty.
Doug Weber, the DARPA project manager, describes the advanced prostheses as, “simply amazing machines, but without the intimate connection to the user, they’re just that; amazing machines that aren’t fully integrated into the body.”
The “magic” in the system, is to tap into the existing remaining nerves, with very small wireless “smart packages” that translate the signals from the nervous system into the correct set of actions for the prosthetic.
“The goal of HAPTIX is to be able to measure signals from the user that can be used to control all of the motions of the prosthesis in a very natural and fluid way,” says Weber. “Instead of having to learn some arbitrary new set of motor skills, the person would just think about moving their hand the way they would normally do.”
The goal of the project is to restore sensory function to such an extent that people will want to wear there prostheses all the time, while also reducing phantom limb pain, which affects around 80% of amputees.
Aside from funding, DARPA is also sharing technology from other projects by providing prosthetics simulation software for testing designs.
According to an DARPA HAPTIX article, “The software includes a variant of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Simulator from the June 2013 Virtual Robotics Challenge, which helped to expedite the initial design and evaluation of semi-autonomous robots that could aid in emergency response efforts.”
“The DARPA Robotics Challenge Simulator was a big help for DRC and we immediately saw how adapting its virtual testing environment could benefit HAPTIX research,” Weber said. “The simulator will enable rapid and low-cost development of the HAPTIX technology and also provide amputees with a realistic experience for learning to use their physical prosthesis.”
So how realistic is this project? Will we see it in our lifetime?
We hope so.
The goal is to have a fully functional implantable system approved for human use by 2020. Pilot studies are already returning positive results from the electrical stimulation between amputees and their prostheses, with take-home trials slated to begin in the 5th year.
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