Did you know that over two million people in the United States have an amputated arm or leg?
Often we associate amputations with veterans serving in armed combat. But they’re also used by people who’ve been in automobile accidents or are recovering from various illnesses.
For many of these individuals, prosthetics play a vital role in helping them navigate their everyday schedule. While artificial limbs have come a long way from its ancient origins, it still has a long way to go.
The medical science industry is making rapid use of changing technology to create advanced prosthetics that were previously only available in the realm of science fiction.
If you want to discover the future of cybernetics, then you came to the right place. In this article, we’ll discuss what’s around the corner for artificial limbs and when cybernetic tech may be available for the average person. Let’s get started!
Bionic Arms Capable of Brain-Controlled Movement
Remember watching The Six Million Dollar Man and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back while growing up? Since these movies came out, people dreamed of prosthetics that replicate the movement of real arms and legs.
So, where does the technology stand forty years after these films sparked our imagination?
Today, state-of-the-art tech can replicate the brain-controlled movement using myoelectricity. This phenomenon uses electrical signals generated from the nerves found in the remaining muscles.
Myoelectric sensors are placed in the socket, which causes the prosthetic to move when the brain sends a message. While these signals may not be exactly like the movement of an actual arm and hand, they can be replicated with training and practice.
So what’s stopping people from using this tech? There are two main problems. First, the advanced artificial limbs need a precise fit — one that must require readjustment.
Reading this limb can be an expensive process that requires lots of visits to the doctor. What’s more, it can also be extremely painful if the stump slips away from the surface.
In areas without a lot of medical technology, this can result in dangerous infections.
Second, the technology only works for hands and arms right now. Leg prosthetics require less conscious movement, which makes them a bad fit for cybernetics.
There’s also significantly more stress placed on them than arms and legs with daily movement.
The solution to both these problems is finding a way to seamlessly attach the implant directly to the bone of the amputee. Unfortunately, this type of procedure is risky, and few individuals are willing to risk it unless they see themselves as trailblazers.
Artificial Limbs That Provide Sensory Feedback
The advancement of prosthetics has already created some technology capable of brain-controlled movement.
While the technology is there, there are still many hurdles to overcome. For some researchers, one of the most important (and challenging) problems to overcome is introducing the sense of touch back into the arm.
So, is it possible? Yes!
Progress is slow and limited, but doctors at the University of Chicago have made some encouraging breakthroughs. New experiments rely on stimulating muscles with electrodes.
These electric currents are then picked up by sensors in an advanced implant and go through a complicated algorithm. In real-time, this algorithm can convert the electricity into sensations like touch.
As of now, this technology is extremely limited — a shocking sensation or gentle pressure. But, research test subjects have been able to identify which finger on their artificial limb is being touched based on these sensors.
Unfortunately, restoring the complete sense of touch may not happen for a long time. As of now, even with the most advanced technology, the sensor arrays can only stimulate a couple of hundred muscle fibers with electrodes.
But, to regain a full sense of touch and feeling, you would need a sensor to stimulate between 10,000 and 15,000 fibers at the same time.
In the future, neural implants may be a way to combat this logistics problem. But, for the time being, these types of procedures remain invasive and ineffective.
3D Printing That Can Help Bring Prosthetics to People in Need
Unfortunately, many people in developing countries can’t access the technology of developed countries. While these individuals can order the arm and leg parts from different countries, they’re typically too expensive.
Why? Because the facilities that are needed to make them are too specialized and need custom orders. Also, many children that need prosthetics can grow out of their original size. As a result, they need constant refitting.
Due to this, the pricing and waitlists for these prosthetics can soar through the roof. Yet, the solution may come from an unlikely area: 3D printing.
Once people install a 3D printing laboratory in a new area, it’s inexpensive to produce specialized replacements.
These machines do need a bit of knowledge and experience to use. But, it’s much more straightforward than traditional manufacturing processes.
That’s why nonprofits like Exceed are teaming up with Nia Technology to provide interested technicians with the trials for their 3D PrintAbility. Soon, the only obstacle blocking widespread limb printing will be internet access.
Luckily, with the emergence of high speed internet bundles, this dream may soon become a reality.
More Lifelike Prosthetics
These days, most prosthetics are identifiable by their robotic-like appearance on a person’s body. Unfortunately, many individuals don’t like the attention that these mechanical models give them. This is especially true of children.
While hook attachment and minimal leg prosthetics work fine, many kids are worried they’ll be bullied if they wear them. So, is there a way to make these artificial limbs more lifelike? Luckily, there is.
Silicone material can be used to create an external covering around the prosthetic material that can mimic the appearance of skin. Unfortunately, these types of add-ons can be quite costly.
For one thing, the skin color must be customized to match the individual’s appearance. On top of that, normal wear and tear mean that the silicone skin will likely need to be replaced every few years.
One estimate found that the average cost of one of these procedures can cost up to $3,500, so for many people, this solution isn’t cost-viable. However, there is another option for those on a budget that want a more lifelike option.
Mass-produced, semi-customizable coverings are available at a much lower cost. These type prosthetics give off a more generic appearance. But, they can be a good starting place for people who are self-conscious about the way they might look.
A USB Port for the Body
What this new industry needs more than anything else is the standardization of technology. That way, patients aren’t relying on customizable technology created by specific researchers.
Luckily, Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems is developing an interface that would allow a robotic arm to be able to plug directly into an interface that emerges from the body.
This technology is revolutionary because this USB-like device would be less expensive. It would also be much safer for the average patient.
Imagine: instead of invasive surgery to update the technology of the arm, all the user would have to do is unplug their limb and hand it to the technician.
Currently, the company is figuring out a way to safely attach this interface directly to the skeleton. That way, there’s no risk of slipping, and the pressure from movement is transferred directly to the skeleton.
If the implant is connected directly to the skeletal system, then the brain becomes very good at filling in the gaps when it comes to movement.
Unfortunately, this small company wouldn’t be able to replicate touch. But, they’re confident that they will soon have a widely available cybernetic limb that can simply attach and detach from the body.
What Does the Future Hold for the Average Person Who Needs Protheses?
Unfortunately, just because the technology for a cybernetic arm is out there doesn’t mean it will be available to the general public anytime soon. Innovations in the prosthetics fields are first utilized by individuals with enough funds.
As we mentioned, many of the more advanced procedures can also be dangerous, with an increased risk of infections. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t people who are brave enough to try it.
Usually, these individuals are athletes, musicians, or people who require a wide range of movement and speed in their daily life. However, as manufacturers gain experiences utilizing these technologies, we can expect to see them used more widely in the general population. Ultimately, it all comes down to cost barriers.
So, if we want to see these technologies used frequently in the next ten to twenty years, then there needs to be sufficient demands and materials to meet the needs.
We hope this article helped you learn more about future developments in the artificial limbs industry. Are you interested in new technology? Keep on reading to find more articles about cutting-edge developments in the industry.