Science appears to be on a serious roll this week. Just two days ago we heard of a woman, paralyzed from the neck down, who was able to control a robotic arm with just her thoughts thanks to advances in brain-computer interface technology. And now, in a world first, a double amputee has managed to gain control of two robotic prosthetic arms attached to his body, using his mind. In a short training period, the man was able to manoeuvre the arms simply by thinking about the movements, and performed various different tasks.
Leslie Baugh was involved in an electrical accident some time ago which meant that both of his arms had to be amputated at shoulder level. Forty years on, he decided to participate in a trial conducted by scientists at Johns Hopkins University. For the past 10 years, members of the University’s Applied Physics Laboratory have been working on developing Modular Prosthetic Limbs, or robotic arms, as part of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program which aims to “restore near-natural motor and sensory capability to upper-extremity amputee patients.”
Having made huge progress in developing this limb system, the researchers needed to scrutinize the usability of the prosthetics on volunteers. But before the arms could be fitted onto Baugh, he had to undergo a surgical procedure at Johns Hopkins Hospital called targeted muscle reinnervation, which basically redirects his nerves to the devices.
“It’s a relatively new surgical procedure that reassigns nerves that once controlled the arm and the hand,” Johns Hopkins Trauma Surgeon Albert Chi said in a statement. “By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform.”
Next, the researchers used pattern recognition algorithms to identify the muscles that contract during movement, and translated that into actual prosthetic movements. During the next phase, Baugh was trained to operate the system using a virtual-reality version in preparation for the real thing. After becoming familiar with how it works, Baugh was fitted with the prosthetic limbs, which were attached and supported via a shoulder socket. This socket also joined up the devices with the reinnervated nerves.
Amazingly, after just 10 days of training, Baugh was able to perform a variety of tasks with the thought-controlled limbs, such as picking up objects and moving them around. He could even manipulate the arms independently at the same time, which is the first time that such a feat has been achieved through mind control.
“I think we are just getting started. It’s like the early days of the internet,” Principal Investigator Michael McLoughlin said in a news release. “There is just a tremendous amount of potential ahead of us, and we’ve just started down this road. And I think the next five to ten years are going to bring phenomenal advancement.”
According to the team, they are now working towards being able to send Baugh home with the limbs so that he can begin to integrate them into his everyday life.