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DARPA closer to brain-controlled prosthesis

Mar. 20, 2013 - 01:10PM   |  
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The wizards at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have been working to field a brain-controlled prosthetic arm that the wearer can operate by thought.

But DARPA’s current version of the prosthesis — not ready for prime time — requires a hard-wired interface, a brain sensor and clunky plug inserted into the head and connected by wires to an external computer that controls the arms.

A breakthrough announced Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health may propel the DARPA Autonomous Robotic Manipulation (ARM) program closer to its ultimate goal: a bionic arm that works like a real one, controlled by thoughts and as nimble as Luke Skywalker’s in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

According to NIH, scientists have developed a wireless brain implant that transforms the brain’s electrical activity into a digital signal that could be transmitted and translated by a receiving device, like a mechanical arm.

The device has been recording and transmitting brain activity data wirelessly for more than a year in two pigs and two rhesus monkeys, said David Borton, an NIH-funded researcher at Brown University.

“The use of this new implantable neural interface technology can provide insight into how to advance human neuroprostheses beyond the present early clinical trials. Further, such tools enable mobile patient use, have the potential for wider diagnosis of neurological conditions and will advance brain research,” Borton wrote in the April issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering.

The small titanium device, about two inches in length, transmits electromagnetic signals through a small window and recharges wirelessly by induction, similar to systems used by electronic toothbrushes.

Inside, electronics are “specifically designed to function on low power to reduce the amount of heat generated by the device,” according to an NIH release.

Of the 5,694 troops who received amputations from 2001 to 2011, 500 suffered major amputations to one or both arms, with 216 receiving amputations at or above the elbow and 29 losing parts of both arms.

Many could benefit from advanced prosthetics. A fully functional arm would allow former service members such as J.R. Salzman, who lost his right arm to a roadside bomb in 2006, to perform more than two tasks at once.

“I always have to use a headset to talk on the phone, because with just one arm, if I use the handset, that’s all I can do,” he said.

DARPA’s $100 million ARM program began the year Salzman lost his arm. It has produced an advanced prosthesis, called the DEKA Arm System, that allows users to pick up items as small as grapes and M&Ms, controlling the prosthetic arms and hands with body muscle contractions, foot pads and sensors.

That arm is still in clinical trials and awaiting FDA approval.

The NIH-funded wireless device will bring the vision of a fully functional Skywalker arm a step closer, researchers say.

“Brain-computer interfaces harness existing brain circuitry, which may offer a more intuitive rehab experience, and ultimately, a better quality of life for people who have already faced serious challenges,” said Grace Peng, who oversees the Rehabilitation Engineering Program of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

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