Scientists at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago reported last week on a revolutionary new advancement in prosthetic technology – a prosthetic leg that can be controlled entirely by the user’s brain.
Zac Vawter, a 32-year old engineer from Yelm, Washington, lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, and is now the first test subject to use the new bionic leg. It’s allowed him to do things that traditional prosthetics wouldn’t allow. In the past, prosthetics have either been entirely mechanical, or robotic with a motor and computer sensor, but neither allows for smooth walking up and down stairs, or the ability to reposition the leg while seated.
The biggest breakthrough with the new prosthetic is technology that connects the leg to a user’s nervous system, allowing it to function much more like a real human leg. These have been used for upper body prosthetics before but were not advanced enough for leg prosthetics until now.
The bionic leg works by picking up information from two electrodes attached to Zac’s hamstring muscle. Using a process called targeted muscle reinnervation, the nerves from his lower leg were connected to his hamstring during amputation. The signals from these nerves control the leg’s movements, so Zac can perform complex motions simply by thinking them, opening up a whole new world of possibilities for prosthetic design.
Estimates from RIC scientists are that a version will be on the market for clinical trials in the next two to three years, and it will be interesting to see what advancements in prosthetics stem from this new technology.