The earliest prosthetic limbs simply took the place of a missing body part or offered basic functionality. However, with advances in engineering, innovative prosthetics do more than just fill the gap with assistive technology — they change lives.
A team in Vienna led by Professor Oskar Aszmann is giving patients even more control with bionic limbs that respond to thought. In 2015, three Austrian men were the world’s first recipients of mind-controlled prosthetics, according to NeuroscienceNews.com.
Bionics are electronic and mechanical devices that supplement parts of the body. Bionic reconstruction hooks the devices up to the patient’s own nerve and muscle fiber, allowing them to regain lost abilities, like picking up a cup or cutting up food, said TIME.
The bioconnections — myoelectrics that bridge between muscle activity and bionic limbs — work with the mechanical system to extend the fingers; when the patient thinks “open hand,” the hand opens, according to a study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It seems as though the field of innovative prosthetics is moving into Six Million Dollar Man territory for seamless integration.
The three recipients of mind-controlled bionic hands had lost hand function because of accidents. During motorcycle or climbing accidents, an arm can be flung wide with tremendous force, ripping nerve roots in the armpit from the spinal cord. Due to this brachial plexus avulsion, nerve input to the arms fails, so muscles weaken and atrophy, Science Daily explained.
The arm, though uninjured, remains paralyzed — a functionless trailing appendage that gets in the way or is prone to damage. Previously, traditional therapeutic approaches involved slings to support the arm, muscle repositioning to restore limited elbow movement or amputation. Innovative prosthetics involving bionic reconstruction now offer better control. Aszmann’s team surgically moved muscles around in the forearm to create the myoelectric connection between patient and prosthesis, Science Daily reported.
Apart from the technology and the intricate surgery, the whole process sounds straightforward — connect nerves, connect muscles and then connect a bionic hand. As you’ve probably guessed, the actual process is much more complicated. There’s more to consider than just wiggling your fingers, according to Science Daily.
Thinking about moving a prosthetic hand isn’t the same as moving your own hand. After the initial reconstructive surgery, Aszmann’s patients trained for months learning to control a hybrid device connected alongside the paralyzed hand. The status of existing nerve and muscle tissue in the damaged arm was another important factor. Without good residual muscle and nerve function, the innovative prosthetics would not work, Science Daily reported.
As well committing to a training program, patients also must be prepared for amputation, which is traumatic and, obviously, irreversible. But without amputation, it’s impossible to fit the new prosthetic. The patient needs to be emotionally detached from their hand in order to physically lose it, Science Daily said.
To pick the most suitable patients for bionic reconstruction, Aszmann and his team developed a psychosocial evaluation for emotional readiness. Described in PLoS One, the questionnaire identifies those who would struggle with the amputation, either physically or mentally. Some are still in constant pain from the initial injury, whereas others may be struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Identifying suitable patients early on gives the procedure its best chance of success.
The Future of Innovative Prosthetics
Aszmann suggested that bionic reconstruction could help improve functionality for other types of limb injuries, according to TIME. Developments in materials science also deliver better functionality. For example, Phys.org reported that solar-powered touch-sensitive graphene skins could restore the sense of touch. This could help users grip with their prosthetic hands without crushing or dropping an object. Advances in technology are bringing innovative prosthetics closer to functional reality for more and more patients.