A brilliant research team has just successfully created the world's first prosthetic that obeys the commands given to it from the user's mind.
Northwestern University scientists in Evanston, Illinois are researching how different patterns of brain activity interact with the central nervous system and can be utilized to maneuver artificial limbs. From that research they have successfully invented the first thought-controlled bionic limb.
The technology of prosthetics that an amputee can control with the mind has been worked on for almost two decades.
Headway has been made over the years with mind-controlled computer interfaces and nerve impulse interactions with various artificial limbs. Robotics research has also made contributions, as well as neurological investigations that have been undertaken while researching ways to improve artificial intelligence and make it mimic the human mind.
But Jesse Sullivan—the man with the first thought-controlled bionic arm—is really only thrilled that it works. The leap in technology also comes with the added advantage of a greater range of motion.
Speaking at the Society of Neuroscience conference in San Diego, California, Nate Bunderson—the presenter of the university team's research paper, said, "If you transfer the nerves [from the amputated stump] to healthy muscles, then you can amplify the brain signals used to control the arm. We can use those signals to control the device."
The scientists did just that with Sullivan. Nerves that had once been connected to the amputated arm were re-routed to his chest muscles. By simply thinking about moving his chest muscles, the nerve signal is transmitted to the bionic arm via a tiny computer that reads the impulses, translates them, and activates the prosthesis with the corresponding reactions.
The technology works because earlier research revealed that nerves continue operating for a significant period of time beyond an amputation. In the past, research with amputee nerve cells showed they gradually became inactive and deteriorated. The team believed this was caused simply by lack of use.
It seems they were correct in their deductions as Sullivan's nerve signals continue to strengthen and all the nerve cells are remaining active and healthy.
Although the exact reason has not yet been established, Bunderson believes the signal strengthening might be nothing more remarkable than the brain successfully adapting itself to the new neural pathways.
"Instead of having muscles interpret the neural command," he said, "we now have a computer trying to interpret the neural command and the brain has to adjust to that."
Plans are underway to make the advanced technology available to more amputees.