Everyone saw the power of the prosthetic leg this past summer when South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius was the first amputee to compete in track at the Olympics. But what about the less prevalent prosthetic arm? “We haven’t seen anywhere near that level of functionality given to upper extremities,” says Mike McLoughlin, program manager at The Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). “Most will basically wear a hook, which is technology that hasn’t changed much since the Civil War.” That is, until now.
Since 2006, McLoughlin, his team at APL, and Dr. Geoffrey Ling of the Department of Defense, have developed a thought-controlled prosthetic arm that has the same functionality of a human limb. “There were a bunch of people that told us it will never work,” McLoughlin says. “The most fun I’ve had in my career is to show people it can.” There are a few ways the technology works, including one in which the team at APL puts small electrodes into the motor cortex of patients’ brains, so, when they think about moving their hand, those electronic pulses get sent to a computer, which converts those signals into movement.
Right now, the limb is being tested on amputee patients and those with spinal-cord injuries, but McLoughlin hopes that in two or three years, APL will have the arm manufactured. “We’ve solved all the hard problems,” he says. “Now we just have to let patients take these home.”