The Future Is Now: Hopkins Builds Thought-Controlled Robot Arm

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Even today, most people who’ve had their hands amputated wear a hook — the same technology they would’ve used if they’d been born a hundred years ago. But we’re on the verge of a breakthrough in the science of prosthetics — in part thanks to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab — where new robot arms and hands will be looped in to its wearer’s thoughts, allowing for thought-controlled movement.

“The Modular Prosthetic Limb is a work of art as much as technological marvel. It provides 26 degrees of motion, including independent movement of each finger, in a package that weighs about nine pounds. It has the dexterity of a natural limb and is designed to respond to a user’s thought. Its hand can pick up something as fragile as an egg and place it gently on a table,” explains Michael McLoughlin, program manager of the university’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program.

The federally-funded research project was initially intended to help soldiers who’d lost a limb in combat, but its potential reach has spread to include people who’ve lost the ability to move their limbs due to neurodegenerative diseases or spinal cord injuries. So how does it work? Trauma surgeons reroute patients’ nerves through spare muscles so that neural signals from the brain are received by the motorized prosthetic. Despite all that fancy wiring, the prosthetic arm weighs only about as much as an average man’s arm, and is strong enough to curl 45 to 50 pounds. The newest model even sends signals back to the brain, so that a patient can actually feel what the robotic hand is grasping.

The breakthrough program was featured on 60 Minutes last week; the show told the story of Jan Sherman, a woman with a rare genetic disease that made it so she lost use of all her muscles except those in her face and neck. It’s amazing to watch — well worth fifteen minutes of your afternoon, if you’re in the mood for an inspirational story. (My favorite part is when Sherman, still confined to bed and unable to move a single muscle, uses her robot arm to fistbump the CBS producer — with her mind. Amazing!)