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Biotech Medicine

After a Year of Secret Field-Testing, Brain-Controlled Bionic Legs Are Here 50

An anonymous reader writes: Today, an Icelandic prosthetic-maker announced that two amputees have been testing brain-controlled bionic legs for over a year. The devices respond to impulses in the subjects' residual limbs, via sensors that were implanted in simple, 15-minute-long procedures. "When the electrical impulse from his brain reaches the base of his leg, a pair of sensors embedded in his muscle tissue connect the neural dots, and wirelessly transmit that signal to the Proprio Foot. Since the command reaches the foot before the wearer's residual muscles actually contract, there's no unnatural lag between intention and action." This is a huge step forward (sorry) for this class of bionics. It may seem like a solved problem based on reports and videos from laboratories, but it's never been exposed to real world use and everyday wear and tear like this.
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After a Year of Secret Field-Testing, Brain-Controlled Bionic Legs Are Here

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  • by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @08:49AM (#49735151)

    Oh why did he have to have such a weakness for cocaine and those twinks at Studio 54???

  • I wonder how long... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @09:08AM (#49735281)
    I wonder how far technology would have to advance and how long it might be before people actually choose to have a limb or limbs removed specifically so that they can be replaced with something more powerful or capable? 20 years? 100 years? Or would natural human aversion to losing body parts prevent this?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @09:23AM (#49735381)

      I wonder how far technology would have to advance and how long it might be before people actually choose to have a limb or limbs removed specifically so that they can be replaced with something more powerful or capable? 20 years? 100 years? Or would natural human aversion to losing body parts prevent this?

      Crack open a Ripley's Believe It Or Not and look at all the freaks with tattoos and piercings all over their bodies. One guy was tattooed green EVERYWHERE and had his teeth sharpened so he could be "the lizardman". He cut his own tongue down the middle so it was "forked" too. There are lots of others.

      Never underestimate how many crazy freaky people there are for whom there are no such natural aversions. Even today we have a class of mental illness of people who *want* to be amputees, not because they have any plans for cool prosthetics but because they want to be amputees. Some people some where will do this on purpose, it defintely will happen.

      • People are already doing this with breasts, even for fully functional ones.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        The forked tongue thing is freaky but surprisingly functional. Humans have sufficient nerves and muscles in the tongue to be able to control each half of the fork independently. The thought is that it was naturally forked at some point in our evolutionary history, and there was some selective advantage to having the two halves link up...so all the equipment is there it's just tied together.

        So some people untie it.

        Apparently, it also gives you a lisp.

      • by d'baba ( 1134261 )
        Better yet, get a copy of "Tetsuo, The Iron Man".
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Um, I think you'll find a lump of material inferior in every respect to the lump of meat you have now. In 20 years I hope we'll be able to force limb buds to grow. Why should salamanders have all the fun?

    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @10:04AM (#49735671) Homepage Journal

      Well, they're already opting to have damaged natural joints like hips and knees replaced. That's a case of upgrading from natural to artificial to gain function. As the performance of artificial limbs increase, it might become an increasingly commonplace treatment for older people, just like knee or hip replacement.

      If we project that trend forward for twenty or thirty years I wouldn't be surprised at all to see artificial legs that outperform natural legs for the purposes of walking or even running. But I don't think people with normal abilities will be trading in their limbs just to be able walk a little longer, run a little faster, or carry more weight. That won't happen until the replacement is subjectively indistinguishable from the real thing; until you can feel the grass under your toes.

      I'm comfortable predicting locomotion parity in the next fifty years, but I wouldn't care to speculate on when we'll see sensory parity.

      • Fighter pilots (Score:2, Informative)

        by tepples ( 727027 )

        But I don't think people with normal abilities will be trading in their limbs just to be able walk a little longer, run a little faster, or carry more weight.

        You might see fighter pilots getting this done in order to avoid blacking out at high g-forces when the blood drains out into the legs. Examples include Sir Douglas Bader [cracked.com], who rejoined the RAF after losing his legs in an accident, and Super NES-era Fox McCloud [cracked.com], who is depicted in an illustration on the cover of Nintendo Power as having metal legs.

      • by dj245 ( 732906 )

        Well, they're already opting to have damaged natural joints like hips and knees replaced. That's a case of upgrading from natural to artificial to gain function. As the performance of artificial limbs increase, it might become an increasingly commonplace treatment for older people, just like knee or hip replacement.

        If we project that trend forward for twenty or thirty years I wouldn't be surprised at all to see artificial legs that outperform natural legs for the purposes of walking or even running. But I don't think people with normal abilities will be trading in their limbs just to be able walk a little longer, run a little faster, or carry more weight. That won't happen until the replacement is subjectively indistinguishable from the real thing; until you can feel the grass under your toes.

        I'm comfortable predicting locomotion parity in the next fifty years, but I wouldn't care to speculate on when we'll see sensory parity.

        I think it will be way more likely that exoskeleton type systems using the same control mechanism will be developed. They could have adaptive algorithms which gradually decrease the power output over time, forcing the patient to develop muscle mass in a safe and 100% controlled manner. It could prevent people with broken or weak bones from making damaging movements, while at the same time allowing rehabilitative movements. It would revolutionize the rehabilitation industry.

        The same technology could be

    • I wonder how far technology would have to advance and how long it might be before people actually choose to have a limb or limbs removed specifically so that they can be replaced with something more powerful or capable? 20 years? 100 years? Or would natural human aversion to losing body parts prevent this?

      For folks with muscular degenerative diseases, I would think it would be a Godsend. If my limbs were wasting away due to some ailment, hell yea I would have them swapped out. Now if they could get ocular implants perfected (like Geordi LaForge in Star Trek - Nemesis), I would swap out my lazy eye in a heartbeat so I could have 20/20 vision (or close) in both eyes!

    • Probably not very soon, but you might start seeing it for people with knee problems in our lifetime.

    • I once stumbled onto a series of pictures some tragically self-loathing girl had posted of her self-mutilation. She started with garden variety cutting, then she started cutting horrifically deep, to the point where you could see muscles and tendons. She cut her own breasts off. She removed most of her genitals, and sewed what remained into some strange and featureless slit. Unsurprisingly, she eventually succeeded in killing herself. The photo album concluded with some message from somebody who knew h

    • Sign me up. If I had they money, I would do this in a heartbeat.

      Probably just one arm though, the non dominate one. Two would freak people out, legs might freak people out in bed.

      Note that I'm not saying I would do this right now, just because. I would want it to be an improvement over my existing arm, otherwise it would be an expensive waste.

  • by Forgefather ( 3768925 ) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @09:23AM (#49735383)

    I have heard that there can be degradation between the squishy bits and the electronic interfaces for these kinds of prosthetics. Any word on whether these limbs suffer the same problem? From the sound of it, it seems like the interface isn't directly connected to the tissue.

  • It's not direct brain-control, i.e. reading brain signals. Myoelectric control measures the electrical activity of muscles, which are in turn controlled by your brain.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      So if I'm correct, a person amputated above the knee would not be able to control their ankles with this technology?

      Not actually brain-controlled in the slightest, then. Unless you consider cars and bikes "brain-controlled".

      • Re:Brain-controlled? (Score:4, Informative)

        by afeeney ( 719690 ) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @10:06AM (#49735683)
        Well, more like "brain controlled" in that all our physical motions are brain-controlled. They're using the brain's signal to move the prosthetic as well as the nearest muscle. So somebody amputated above the knee would be able to control an artificial leg if normal functions of the leg could be coded into the prosthetic. (When this muscle flexes, move the leg like this, when that one flexes, move it like that.)
      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Not necessarily, but you would need more than a 15 minute procedure. In some cases they can divide a muscle and graft different nerves to different parts to get a myoelectric output for muscles that are gone.

  • So an eye and an arm and we have us the six million dollar man.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      28-year-old Farrah Fawcett does not come standard, though.

  • by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @09:51AM (#49735573)

    I wonder what the limits of this are.

    I.e., if we take a sufficiently young human with a very plastic brain, can we give them two additional arms, or a flagellum, or whatever, and have it all work out well?

    • by fisted ( 2295862 )

      If they were born with two extra arms, learned to control the muscles involved in moving those arms, then have their extra arms aputated and replaced for something bionic, then yes, should work.

      • Well that was my point about having very plastic brains. I'm not a neuroscientist, and I don't know how much details like (I have specifically four major appendages to control; two arms, two legs) are baked into the brain from day 0, vs. being just one of the configurations to which a very young brain can adapt.

        • Well that was my point about having very plastic brains. I'm not a neuroscientist, and I don't know how much details like (I have specifically four major appendages to control; two arms, two legs) are baked into the brain from day 0, vs. being just one of the configurations to which a very young brain can adapt.

          You missed the point, I think.

          The bionic foot in the article doesn't receive signals directly from the brain. It receives signals as they arrive at existing muscles. So we're talking about a brain that has already been wired naturally to control normally-grown muscles, and hijacking that message to also actuate motors. To use this process for additional limbs, you'd have to have a person who had grown those limbs to begin with.

          • I see. Thanks for the correction. You're right, I did miss that detail.

          • I'm pretty sure they've already shown that if you hook a new limb to other muscles/nerves, that you can learn to control it via your brain's signals to those muscles/nerves. Just because those muscles didn't originally attach to an arm, or control one, doesn't mean you can't learn that by flexing them in a certain way you can control the new limb.

            There would probably be a significant learning curve, but it's certainly not impossible.
    • I wonder what the limits of this are.

      Internet rule 34.

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Wednesday May 20, 2015 @09:56AM (#49735603) Homepage Journal

    Clint Eastwood here. Do you have to think in Icelandic?

    • Færa vinstri fæti áfram
      Færa hægri fæti áfram
      Færa vinstri fæti áfram
      Færa hægri fæti áfram

  • Sounds like something Google would be interested in.
  • It may seem like a solved problem based on reports and videos from laboratories, but it's never been exposed to real world use and everyday wear and tear like this.

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.... [nationalgeographic.com]

    That's from January 2010, which means it was actually written mid-2009. That's six years ago, and the original article documents at least one person who was using this technology every day for over six months, outside the lab.

    So it was definitely not presented as a solved problem before, but it's also not really a breakthrough; more of a slow evolution and some PR.

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