Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Deka Arm

Historically speaking, advances in the field of prosthetics occur primarily during times of war and conflict. This phenomenon is easy to explain--funding for prosthetic research is increased as the surge of wounded military men and women increases. The number of military personnel that sustain amputations can be correlated directly to the amount of funding delegated for research.

In 2007 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded two substantial grants to fund what has been dubbed as "revolutionary prosthetics." The goal of the grants is to develop, create and implement "naturally functioning" upper extremity prosthetics. Although the focus of the program is on designing hands and arms, there is little doubt that a trickle down will occur and that all amputees may eventually benefit from the advancements.

The results of the nearly $150 million investment are starting to be yielded. Phase one of the project, the DEKA arm, is currently being fitted on select military personnel and is readying for market release in the future. From fully articulated fingers to replicating various degrees motion, this is an exciting advancement!

From socket design to form and function, the DEKA arm has re-energized research in the field of prosthetics. "The ultimate goal of this research program has been to provide a prosthesis that mimics the natural hand and arm." With phase one nearing completion, attention is being turned towards the neurological component.

In order to develop an arm that mimics natural movements and responds instinctively, an interface with the brain is necessary. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have been working on developing a communication system between the patient and the prosthesis.

A small electrode, approximately 3 mm in size, has been developed for implantation on top of the brain. Once in place, the electrode can communicate the brain's commands directly to the prosthesis. The neuro-electrode has been implanted in primates with astounding results! The primates are able to control their prosthesis in real-time with natural movements, even demonstrating the ability to press deliberately press keys on a keyboard using prosthetic finger isolation.

This is a remarkable time in the field of prosthetics. Advances are being made in directions that a decade ago were only explored in Science Fiction (Luke Skywalker from Star Wars). The practitioners at OPC are on top of the technology available not only today but also in the future.

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