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Woman gets “bionic arm”

Sept. 14, 2006
Special to World Science  

Doc­tors Thurs­day in­tro­duced the first wom­an suc­cess­ful­ly fit­ted with a “bi­on­ic” arm, a device meant to let am­putees move ar­ti­fi­cial arms as if they were real limbs, just by think­ing.

De­vel­oped by Todd Kuiken of the The Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion In­sti­tute of Chi­ca­go and a team of ex­perts, the tech­no­lo­gy is de­signed to offer more nat­u­ral move­ment and a great­er range of mo­tion than tra­di­tion­al pros­the­ses. “It is so re­ward­ing for me as a phy­si­cian and a sci­entist to lead re­search with the po­ten­tial to pos­i­tive­ly im­pact the lives of am­putees, in­clud­ing our U.S. serv­ice men and wom­en,” said Kuiken. 

Nerves in the am­putee’s shoul­der, which once went to the am­pu­tat­ed arm, are re-rout­ed and con­nect­ed to healthy mus­cle in the chest to in­stall the device, Kuiken ex­plained. The re-rout­ed nerves grow in­to the chest mus­cle and di­rect sig­nals they once sent to the am­pu­tat­ed arm in­stead to the ro­bo­tic arm, vi­a elec­trodes. 

Then, when the pa­tient thinks about mov­ing his or her arm, the ac­tion is car­ried out as it would be in a healthy arm, Kuiken said. In oth­er words, he added, the sen­sory nerves to the hand are re- rout­ed to a patch of skin on the chest. Now when Mitch­ell is touched on this skin, she feels her hand is be­ing touched. 

Cur­rent­ly avail­a­ble ar­ti­fi­cial arms have on­ly up to three mo­tors. The “Bi­on­ic Arm” tech­nol­o­gy in­cludes a six-motor arm, Kuiken said. 

Mitch­ell, of El­li­cott Cit­y, Md., is a form­er U.S. Ma­rine who lost her left arm in a 2004 mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent. She re­ceived the sur­gery last year. “Be­fore the sur­ger­y, I doubt­ed that I would ev­er be able to get my life back,” she said. The arm “al­lowed me to re­turn to a life that is more re­ward­ing and ac­tive than I ev­er could have im­ag­ined.”

Al­though the de­vice is heavy and the fin­gers move awk­ward­ly, Mitch­ell told the Reu­ters news agen­cy on Thurs­day that she ma­naged to cut a steak the night be­fore, “a very big thing for me.”


More than 400 am­putees who have served in Af­ghan­i­stan and Iraq have been treated in Ar­my hos­pi­tals. The Bi­on­ic Arm tech­nol­o­gy could help them, of­fi­cials of the in­sti­tute said.

Kuiken’s work is part of an ar­ray of re­search aimed at let­ting in­jured peo­ple trans­late brain sig­nals in­to mo­tion. In late 2004, sci­en­tists an­nounced a way that peo­ple could con­trol a cur­sor on a com­put­er screen just by wear­ing a spe­cial­ly de­signed cap that trans­lated their thoughts.

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Doctors on Thursday introduced the first woman successfully fitted with a “bionic arm” that allows amputees to move artificial arms as if they were real limbs, just by thinking. The device also is designed to give patients more natural movement and a greater range of motion than traditional prostheses. The technology was developed by Todd Kuiken of the The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and a team of rehabilitation experts with grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “It is so rewarding for me as a physician and a scientist to lead research with the potential to positively impact the lives of amputees, including our U.S. service men and women,” said Kuiken. Nerves located in the amputee’s shoulder, which once went to the amputated arm, are re-routed and connected to healthy muscle in the chest to install the bionic arm, Kuiken explained. The re-routed nerves grow into the chest muscle and direct signals they once sent to the amputated arm instead to the robotic arm, via surface electrodes. Then, when the patient thinks about moving his or her arm, the action is carried out as it would be in a healthy arm, Kuiken said. In other words, he added, the sensation nerves to the hand have been re- routed to a patch of skin on her chest. Now when Mitchell is touched on this skin, she feels that her hand is being touched. Currently available artificial arms have only up to three motors. The “Bionic Arm” technology includes a six-motor arm developed in collaboration with researchers around the world, Kuiken said. Mitchell, of Ellicott City, Md., is a former U.S. Marine who lost her left arm in a 2004 motorcycle accident. She underwent the surgery in 2005. “Before the surgery, I doubted that I would ever be able to get my life back,” said Mitchell. The arm “allowed me to return to a life that is more rewarding and active than I ever could have imagined. I am happy, confident and independent. As a military veteran, I am also hopeful that the Bionic Arm technology may provide benefits to amputees returning from war.” More than 400 amputees who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq have been treated in Army hospitals. The Bionic Arm technology could help them, officials of the institute said. Although the device is heavy and the fingers move awkwardly, Mitchell told Reuters on Thursday that she was able to cut a steak in the morning, “a very big thing for me.”