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Wireless bionics

Researchers in Britain have already developed the Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAP), a rod screwed into the bone of an amputee onto which prosthetics can be fitted directly and securely, be they hands, legs or fingers.

The rod means higher loads can be carried than with traditional prosthetics which fit over the stump of an amputee like a glove. It also avoids friction between the prosthetic and the skin.

Scientists such as Prof James Fawcett, of the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair, are meanwhile developing neural interfaces whereby prosthetics will communicate wirelessly with implants fitted directly into the nerve fibres in the stump.

"People have produced very sophisticated prosthetics which will do very sophisticated things, but in almost every case the thing that people are struggling with is to link it up successfully to the nervous system," he says.

"A lot of soldiers who have lost limbs apparently have given up using these devices and gone back to a simple hook, which at least is reliable.

"The device we're producing is for recording sensory impulses in a nerve and gets inserted into the limb nerve itself."

Once the device is inserted into the nerve, nerve fibres grow through it. Nerve signals associated with particular movements are then selected, and these signals transmitted wirelessly to a receiver in the prosthetic.

So far the device has been tested in mice and rats for up to 12 months. While the researchers do have some concerns that scarring within the device could strangle nerve fibres and disrupt signals, no such problems have been detected to date, says Prof Fawcett.

"We have a programme which will develop a prototype interface in about three years' time and that will then be taken forward through the legislature for human safety and toxicity trials," he predicts.

Researchers in Italy are also working on wiring bionics to the peripheral nerve system, and have already conducted trials in which electrodes temporarily connected to the nerves were used to drive an unattached prosthetic hand.

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