Most of us have at some point watched Luke Skywalker gain the use of the most mechanically perfect prosthetic limb we can ever imagine in the movie “The Empire Strikes Back.” Naturally, most of us probably don’t realize how far the technology we have available to us in the real world is coming. Not quite as far as Skywalker’s arm, but as scientists study and learn about the various methods of connecting a human’s brain nerve signals to machines–something already done on a routine basis in research–we’re not as far off as you might think.
One of the bigger problems we’ve faced so far is adapting the science of amputation enough to catch up to the reality of lifelike prosthetic limbs. Even though the tech is amazing, it’s insanely difficult to implement when surgeons have already destroyed muscle and cut off access to nerve endings. Those areas of the appendage are crucial when it comes to attaching a prosthetic limb that can potentially be as dexterous as your real limb once was–before you lost it.
We might be on our way to fixing the problem.
When surgeons cut off access to those damaged nerve endings and add a prosthetic limb, they first need to find away to cross what is essentially an abyss separating the two. Think of it like two armies separated by a vast chasm or valley. In order to communicate and form an effective battle plan, a bridge must first be constructed. In the case of the researchers who think they may have solved this problem, the bridge is both biological and electronic in nature. Whether you require ankle surgery, knee surgery or elbow surgery in order to affix a new limb, the method could be managed the same way.
It works like this: surgeons take two very small bits of muscle from the patient, tie them together, then insert them underneath the flaps of skin where the appendage was amputated, attaching them as needed. The surgeons need two bits of muscle so that when one contracts, the other can stretch out. Afterward, they can take nerve endings which were buried beneath those skin flaps and connect them to the muscles where they would grow throughout.
This procedure would allow a technique already in use to work much more effectively. Once completed, your doctors would strategically place electrodes in order to connect the new muscle and nerve growths to the advanced, lifelike prosthetic limb. Technical details aside, the muscles, nerves and electrodes would allow your brain nearly complete control over the new prosthetic piece. The potential for fine motor control and dexterous movements with the new science and technology combined is completely unprecedented.
Researchers have already conducted animal testing and are calling it the agonist-antagonist myoneural interface (as if that’s not a mouthful). The technique was a resounding success, and more importantly the part of the procedure where the muscle tissue was placed eventually allowed production of new blood vessels and healthy nerves. Even more interesting than that is the relatively low invasiveness of the procedure. Although the results so far have been extremely promising, human trials are at least another two years away. After that, it’s just a matter of introducing the new method into the health industry and waiting for the cost to fall far enough that any amputee can have the chance at a more normal human experience. We can’t wait!