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Better neural control of prosthetics for amputees

Feb 2012

Sandia National Laboratories researchers, using off-the-shelf equipment in a chemistry lab, have been working on ways to improve amputees’ control over prosthetics with direct help from their own nervous systems.

Organic materials chemist Shawn Dirk, robotics engineer Steve Buerger and others are creating biocompatible interface scaffolds. The goal is improved prosthetics with flexible nerve-to-nerve or nerve-to-muscle interfaces through which transected nerves can grow, putting small groups of nerve fibers in close contact to electrode sites connected to separate, implanted electronics.

Neural interfaces operate where the nervous system and an artificial device intersect. Interfaces can monitor nerve signals or provide inputs that let amputees control prosthetic devices by direct neural signals, the same way they would control parts of their own bodies.

Sandia’s research focuses on biomaterials and peripheral nerves at the interface site. The idea is to match material properties to nerve fibers with flexible, conductive materials that are biocompatible so they can integrate with nerve bundles.

“There are a lot of knobs we can turn to get the material properties to match those of the nerves,” Dirk said.

Buerger added, “If we can get the right material properties, we could create a healthy, long-lasting interface that will allow an amputee to control a robotic limb using their own nervous system for years, or even decades, without repeat surgeries.”

Researchers are looking at flexible conducting electrode materials using thin evaporated metal or patterned multiwalled carbon nanotubes.

The work is in its early stages and it might be years before such materials reach the market. Studies must confirm they function as needed, then they would face a lengthy Food and Drug Administration approval process.

But the need is there. The Amputee Coalition estimates 2 million people in the United States are living with limb loss. The Congressional Research Service reports more than 1,600 amputations involving U.S. troops between 2001 and 2010, more than 1,400 of those associated with the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most were major limb amputations.

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