Improved prosthetics give combat veterans and others back their future

Technology helps amputees, giving them new limbs with ever higher levels of functionality

Credit: (Boston, MA, 04/17/17) Jose Sanchez, 33, of San Antonio, Texas, waves an American flag as he cross the finish line during the 121st Boston Marathon in Boston on Monday, April 17, 2017. Staff photo by Christopher Evans. Image from Creative Commons.
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At 17 years old, Hugh Herr, the future director of bio-mechatronics at MIT, had his legs amputated from the knee down after an ice-climbing accident.

Undaunted, Herr built his own bionic limbs, which allow him to walk, run and even climb.

MIT, with the help of Herr, recently opened a Center for Extreme Bionics, which hopes to develop electromechanical implants that could be used to cure physical, emotional and intellectual disorders in the not-so-distant future.

“Fifty years out, I think we will have largely eliminated disability,” Herr says.

Prosthetic limbs

Technology has opened a frontier in the medical world that is just starting to be explored, which could lead to tremendous benefits for veterans in the United States – specifically with prosthetics, according to research the Office of Naval Research is working on.

Naval Research is working with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the Naval Research Laboratory and a number of universities to develop smart prosthetics, called Monitoring Osseointegrated Prostheses, which can monitor and warn the use of issues with their artificial limbs.

The artificial limbs forego the conventional skin-tight sockets in favor of titanium rods, which are surgically placed inside the amputee’s residual limb. The amputee’s bone grows over the connection point with the rod and allows amputees to connect their artificial limbs to a titanium connector.

Amputees using these prostheses have a quality of life that is double that of skin-tight socket prostheses users, and they wear their limbs longer throughout the day, according to a study conducted in 2011.

Emotional impulse control

Technology offers lots of potential for mental health treatment as well, and Patricia Arean PhD, the co-director of the BRIGHTEN program at the National Institute of Mental Health, says that mobile devices are already paving the way forward in showing doctors, the public and researchers how to monitor and help mental health.

App development is one way that technology is being used to treat mental health issues, and Patricia Arean says that her 2016 BRIGHTEN study demonstrates that mobile therapy and research is already possible.

Apps let users self-track symptoms, learn skill-training to cope, and connect with experts in real-time to get care, Arean says, and they can have a significant impact on mood and disability over time.

“That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: the most interesting applications turn up on a battlefield, or in a gallery.”

Helping wounded veterans

William Gibson is the award-winning science fiction author and father of the cyberpunk genre with the 1984 novel Neuromancer, which shaped many of the concepts of how we view and use the web even today. He wrote, “That’s something that tends to happen with new technologies generally: the most interesting applications turn up on a battlefield, or in a gallery.” With prosthetics, it can be both. Veterans who have had limbs amputated by improvised explosive devices while serving overseas are finding a better quality of life, due to improving prosthetics tech.

Credit: Creative Commons.

More than 1,650 Marines and soldiers have lost limbs, largely to IEDs. But better tactics, technology, first aid medical procedures, and armored vehicles have cut that number down to almost none. 

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the government has been helping veterans get access to prosthetics to replace damaged or missing limbs since the Civil War. In the last twenty years, that technology has become much more advanced, with a surplus of veterans suffering amputations. And it’s not just younger veterans- older generations of veterans are beginning to suffer increased rates of amputation, due to limb atrophy from diabetes or vascular disease.

The VA and the medical professionals at Walter Reed Medical Center, as well as researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency work in concert with each other and outside agencies to give these veterans a better chance at living a full life. Innovations under their watch include the Seattle Foot, the predecessor to the ‘blade’ prosthetics often seen today, and the ‘Luke Hand,’ named after Star Wars, one of the first true steps forward for functional prosthetic hands.

Defense money or not, these innovations are made available to everyone who’s suffered the loss of a limb, giving anyone who’s ever lost a limb the chance to grab a fuller life with both hands.

Together with osseointegration, DARPA researchers are developing technology to help a patient’s brain integrate directly with the prosthetic limb, allowing ever-finer control of the limb and sensory feedback from the prosthetic itself, for a more total integration.

Veterans who have lost limbs can take their future back through improving technology and support from the medical and development communities. Where a war took away a limb, science can give it back to them, in increasing fidelity.

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