A Prosthetic Limb, Controlled by an Amputee's Thoughts

Thanks to new DARPA technology, things like picking up a coffee cup could be, literally, within grasp.

Cyborgs are here -- or, at least, they're in DARPA laboratories.

For a while now, the Defense Department agency, alongside civilian researchers, has been working to develop prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the brains -- as in, the thoughts -- of their wearers.

And one of the most promising of those prosthetic devices, especially for near-term, practical application, has been something that emphasizes the "man" in "bionic man." (Or, of course, the "woman" in "bionic woman.") DARPA, through its Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program, has developed a prosthetic interface that relies on "targeted muscle re-innervation." TMR works, DARPA says, by essentially "rewiring nerves from amputated limbs," allowing the wearer of a given prosthetic to control the device with his or her existing muscles. The approach relies on signals, from nerves or muscles or both at the same time, to control the prosthetics and provide direct sensory feedback to the wearer. Limb to brain and back again.

The Department of Defense, which both knows of and has a vested interest in such things, sums up RE-NET's limb-inal efforts like so: "Basically, they're working on a bionic limb interface that will allow amputees to control their bionic limbs with their brains."

Yep, basically. The interface, at this point, is not necessarily graceful. It is not necessarily foolproof. But it offers a way for amputees to interact with their environment much more readily -- and much more meaningfully -- than they might otherwise be able to. Things like a one-handed pick-up of a coffee cup could now be, quite literally, within an amputee's grasp.

In the video above, former Army Staff Sgt. Glen Lehman, who was injured in Iraq, demonstrates the new-and-improved TMR technology. Scroll ahead to the 30-second mark to watch Lehman almost effortlessly grasp a scarf with his mechanical hand. Which is pretty amazing, when you think about it.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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