A Bionic, Mind-Controlled Arm, From the Inventor of the Segway

The FDA just approved a prosthetic arm that amputees can control with their brains.
DARPA

The Segway was supposed to change everything ... until it became the preferred transportation of walking tours and shopping mall security. But now its inventor, Dean Kamen, is back with a new creation that might be slightly more revolutionary.

Enter the DEKA limb, the first FDA-approved robotic arm that's powered by the wearer's mind. Electrodes attached to the arm near the prosthesis detect muscle contraction, and those signals are then interpreted into specific movements by a computer, the FDA announced on Friday.

"The device is modular so that it can be fitted to people who’ve suffered any degree of limb loss, from an entire arm to a hand," Bloomberg Businessweek reported. "Six 'grip patterns' allow wearers to drink a cup of water, hold a cordless drill or pick up a credit card or a grape, among other functions."

A Department of Veterans Affairs study of the DEKA arm found that 90 percent of study participants were able to use locks and keys, zippers, and combs with the arm—all activities they hadn't been able to do with their existing prosthetics. 

More than 1,500 Americans have lost a leg or arm in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The DEKA arm is part of a larger, $100 million Defense Department program aimed at improving prosthetics.

The arm's creators are calling it "Luke" after the amputee Star Wars character, naturally.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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