Health Headlines: Brain-powered prosthetics

Published: Sep. 20, 2022 at 6:29 AM CDT
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Lake Charles, LA (KPLC) - In most cases, artificial limbs are in a fixed position. That means the wearer’s movements aren’t natural and may even be uncomfortable. But now, scientists are testing brain-powered prosthetic ankles that may be game-changing for amputees.

55-year-old Greg Phillips was on his way home on Labor Day 2013, when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle.

“It was called a compression fracture in which the foot was crushed between an 850-pound motorcycle and the rear axle of a car,” Phillips recalls.

After two years of fighting infection and instability, Phillips and his doctors agreed to amputate.

But traditional prosthetics also require the wearer to compensate with their hips or back.

Dr. Helen Huang who is a biomedical engineer at NC State University & UNC Chapel Hill explains, “It doesn’t provide power, doesn’t provide enough range of motion.”

In a lab at North Carolina State University, biomedical engineers are currently studying how these advanced prosthetic ankles could restore more natural movement.

“The difference of our prosthesis is that we’re actually giving control to people by using the muscle signals that are still there, even after amputation,” explains Aaron Fleming who is a biomedical engineer at NC State University & UNC Chapel Hill.

Fleming attaches sensors to track Phillips’ calf muscles. With the device on, Phillips can stand up from a chair without using his arms. He can even walk with a fluid motion, and bend to pick up objects.

While the powered ankle isn’t commercially available yet, Phillips says he’d like to have one someday.

The researchers say before the technology can be made more widely available, it needs to be tested in real-world settings as wearers go through their daily routines. That would help the scientists assess their reliability.