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A New Tech Sensation

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, December 13, 2010
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Editor's note: This piece is based on Gienna Shaw's Nov. 2 online column, "Artificial Limb, Skin Advances Add Sensation." Visit www.healthleadersmedia.com and click on the Technology tab, then the Technology Input link.

Prosthetics technology has been advancing rapidly of late, with a number of breakthroughs or emerging technologies that will help those with artificial limbs feel sensations such as pressure and heat and, as a result, move more naturally with more exact dexterity. Grasping a small item such as a cup of coffee, for example, would be much easier if there were a two-way interface between brain and fingers.

The Department of Defense has such high hopes for the technology that it has granted researchers at Dallas' Southern Methodist University's Lyle School of Engineering $5.6 million to create a research facility to work on lightning-fast connections between robotic limbs and the human brain for injured soldiers and other amputees.

The key, researchers believe, is fiber optic links that would send signals seamlessly back and forth between the brain and artificial limbs.

"Currently available prosthetic devices commonly rely on cables to connect them to other parts of the body for operation---for example, requiring an amputee to clench a healthy muscle in the chest to manipulate a prosthetic hand. The movement is typically deliberate, cumbersome, and far from lifelike," according to SMU. "The goal of the Neurophotonics Research Center is to develop a link compatible with living tissue that will connect powerful computer technologies to the human nervous system through hundreds or even thousands of sensors embedded in a single fiber."

Every movement or sensation a human being is capable of has a nerve signal at its root. "The reason we feel heat is because a nerve is stimulated, telling the brain there's heat there," Marc Christensen, center director and electrical engineering chair in SMU's Lyle School of Engineering said in a report on the new technology.

Unlike experimental electronic nerve interfaces made of metal, fiber optic technology would not be rejected or destroyed by the body's immune system.

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