A Major Effort to Build the First Successful Bionic Arm
The human hand – four fingers and a thumb. When we lose it due to injury, we've lost something that truly makes us human.
That's a key reason why the Pentagon's "Revolutionizing Prosthetics" program, a $100 million multi-disciplinary effort in science and engineering is so important. It is working towards building a robotic arm with a fully functioning hand -- a feat never before accomplished in medicine.
The need for such a development is accentuated by the number of wounded soldiers returning home after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many having suffered the amputation of their arm.
"We've made great strides in developing artificial legs, but a good functioning prosthetic arm has not been remotely possible," says Geoffrey Ling, an Army colonel and neurologist who heads the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, a massive project which involves more than 300 scientists ( including engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists).
Duplicating the intricate nature and interaction of the arm and hand in a highly functioning prosthetic poses a challenge, says Geoffrey, who adds that the current artificial arm used today has not changed much since World War II.
"If you look at your hand, it's an incredibly complex piece of machine," he says. "What nature provides us is extraordinary. The opposable thumb, the five finger independently moving, articulating fingers --it's fantastic what this does. In fact it is the opposable thumb which helps separate us from other animal species and helps make us human."
He is determined to give that humanity back to patients. His project is run out of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the military -- the same agency that oversaw the creation of night vision, stealth aircraft and GPS.
The project, featured recently on an edition of 60 Minutes, also includes other heavy hitters in the world high technology such as inventor Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation, the creator of dozens of medical devices and the Segway. DARPA is currently testing a high-tech, computerized attachable arm and hand (called the DEKA Arm) that Kamen and his group of 40 engineers spent a year working on.
If building a robotic arm and hand for amputees to move and function as naturally as possible is not challenging enough, then think of the next necessary step the project is embarking on: connecting the artificial limb straight into the nervous system.
Commenting on this daunting task, Geoffrey says: "Remember, these patients lost their arm. But that big bundle of nerves that came out of the spinal cord still exists in their shoulder. So the nerves that control the arm are not necessarily lost with the arm and the brain continues to send those signals to those nerves when a person imagines moving their missing limb."
Geoffrey is also professor and Acting Chair of the Department of Neurology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS).
In addition, he serves on the critical care staff at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital. His research interests focus on brain and spinal cord injury, particularly that which is relevant to the military. His work studied diagnostic and therapeutic responses as well as elucidation of the basic mechanisms of penetrating injury.
As testament to his expertise, he was brought in as a consulting specialist when Arizona Congressional Rep. Gabrielle Giffords suffered a gunshot to the head in an assailant's attack in 2011.
Geoffrey received his doctorate in pharmacology from Cornell University's Graduate School of Medical Sciences and his medical degree from Georgetown University. He completed his neurology residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, conducted further studies under a neuropharmacology research fellowship at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and completed a neurointensive care fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The Revolutionizing Prosthetics program not only stands to fulfill the military's commitment to help make seriously wounded soldiers whole again, says Geoffrey, but it will also bring advanced prosthetic technology to other amputees as well. "This is an advancement in medical technology that will benefit the entire world," he says.
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