November 30, 2012      

WIRED ONLINE: A postdoctoral student has developed a technique for implanting thought-controlled robotic arms and their electrodes directly to the bones and nerves of amputees, a move which he is calling “the future of artificial limbs”. The first volunteers will receive their new limbs early in 2013.

“The benefits have no precedent,” Max Ortiz Catalan, who carries out research in biomedicine and artificial intelligence at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, told “They will be able to simultaneously control several joints and motions, as well as to receive direct neural feedback on their actions. These features are today not available for patients outside research labs, our aim is to change that.”

Ordinary myoelectric prostheses work by placing electrodes over the skin to pick up nerve signals that would ordinarily be sent by the brain to the limb. An algorithm then translates these signals, and sends instructions to motors within the electronic limb. Since the electrodes are applied to the skin surface, however, they will undoubtedly encounter countless issues in maintaining the fluid transferal of information back and forth between the brain and the limb.

By implanting those electrodes directly to the patient’s nerves, Catalan is hoping to get one step closer than anyone else to replicating natural movement.

“Our technology helps amputees to control an artificial limb, in much the same way as their own biological hand or arm, via the person’s own nerves and remaining muscles,” he said.

new arm

Using the Osseointegrated Prosthesis for the Rehabilitation of Amputees (OPRA) method developed by Rickard BrAnemark at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Catalan and his team plan to forgo traditional sockets in place of bone-anchored prostheses attached via titanium screws. It was a method inspired by BrAnemark’s father, who was the first to discover that titanium can fuse with bone tissue.

“The operation will consist of placing neural and muscular electrodes on the patients stumps, as well as placing the bidirectional interfaces into the human body.”

A titanium implant acts as the bidirectional interface, transmitting signals from the electrodes, placed on nerves and muscles, to the limb. It is a truer replication of how the arm was designed to work, with information from existing nerves being transferred to the limb and to the implant, where algorithms can translate thought-controlled instructions into movement. It is, Catalan told, a “closed loop control” that moves us “one step further to providing natural control of the artificial limb”.

Add to this the fact that every finger is motorized and can be individually controlled, and Catalan’s bold statement might just be accurate.

The first surgeries, due to be carried out by BrAnemark in January or February 2013, will all be on patients that had limbs amputated several years prior. Asked whether or not this will make success harder, Catalan said it was one question they are looking to answer.

“The possibilities are higher in recent amputation. Our first patients however, have been amputated for several years. This project aims to answer several very interesting scientific questions in neurorehabilitation.”