Reporter B.J. Austin with Dallas area Public Radio station KERA has interviewed SMU engineers Marc Christensen and Volkan Otugen who are working as part of a consortium with industry and other universities to develop technology that will someday help amputees have “feeling” in their artificial limbs.
The research is funded through a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense and industry for a center led by SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. The goal is to develop revolutionary technology for advanced prosthetic limbs that will help amputees returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Two-way fiber optic communication between prosthetic limbs and peripheral nerves will be key to operating realistic robotic arms, legs and hands that not only move like the real thing, but also “feel” sensations like pressure and heat.
KERA’s coverage aired Oct. 10 as part of a larger series on “Engineering Hope: Groundbreaking Research That Could Change Our Lives..”
This week, KERA 90.1 is airing a series of reports: “Engineering Hope: Groundbreaking Research That Could Change Our Lives.” In today’s report KERA’s BJ Austin visits a lab where researchers from North Texas universities are developing the next generation of prosthetic limbs for injured soldiers. It’s cutting-edge research that could allow amputees to move more naturally and sense feeling with their artificial limbs.
In a busy Starbucks, two things make 28 year old Clint Barkley stand out in the crowd: his clean cut good looks and his walk.
Barkley: We were just south of Fallujah in 2005. We ran over a land mine. I lost my left leg. Our gunner lost both of his feet below his knee.
The former Marine from Bedford walks unevenly, slightly stiff, but full of confidence. He wears a ten pound, titanium leg. It attaches mid-thigh and has a computerized knee.
Barkley: It reads your body weight, how you’re moving and it reacts accordingly. I put my heel down then as I go and put all the pressure in my toe it knows I’m taking a step so it releases and kicks the foot back forward for me.
But what it doesn’t do is allow a smooth, natural gait. And the leg does not allow him to feel the gravel in a driveway or the heat of an asphalt parking lot in August. But that could be in his future.
A consortium of scientists and engineers in North Texas and elsewhere are working on a way for the brain, the body’s nerve impulses and an artificial limb to “talk” to each other. That could allow an amputee to “think” about moving an artificial arm or leg and the limb would respond immediately and more naturally. Conversely, the artificial limb would talk to the brain, giving it sensory input, thereby allowing the amputee to “feel.” The research is being led by Marc Christensen, Professor of Engineering Innovation at Southern Methodist University. But, part of the project is taking place in a noisy, unassuming lab at the University of North Texas. That’s where Christensen talked about the research, being funded initially by a 5.5 million dollar grant from the Department of Defense.
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