Artificial limbs that feel: How a fiber optic connection will hook up prosthetics to the brain

Prosthetics that can feel pressure and temperature.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Science fiction writers have salivated over the thought of having a two-way brain interface for a long time.

Currently, amputees have prosthetic devices that depend on cables that connect their artificial limb to other parts of their body. So, for instance, they might have to squeeze a muscle in the chest to move their artificial hand. This makes it hard to pick up a cup of coffee because of this indirect motion.

Southern Methodist University's technology would get around that, by providing a more seamless two-way communication pathway.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the Neurophotonics Research Center with $5.6 million to create an optical link that would allow the brain to communicate directly with artificial limbs.

The scientists reported:

The researchers believe their new technologies can ultimately provide the solution to the kind of injury that left actor Christopher Reeve paralyzed after a horse riding accident. "This technology has the potential to patch the spinal cord above and below a spinal injury," said SMU engineer Marc Christensen. "Someday, we will get there."

And the optical connection could help patients with prosthetic limbs feel sensations and move things more naturally. The artificial limbs could sense pressure and detect if something is hot.

To complete this connection, living tissue would be wired to a computer system that would be hooked up to the human nervous system through sensors built into the fiber.

"Enhancing human performance with modern digital technologies is one of the great frontiers in engineering," Christensen said in a statement. "Providing this kind of port to the nervous system will enable not only realistic prosthetic limbs, but also can be applied to treat spinal cord injuries and an array of neurological disorders."

When we feel that a pot is hot, a single nerve can tell our brains that it is so. The key here is to develop this technology so it can respond on the individual, cell level.

That way, injured soldiers and other amputees can have super fast connections from their brains to their artificial limbs. Here's to enhancing human performance.

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