U researchers to create bionic arm

According to U research, the “Bionic Man,” or at least parts of him, might not be as far away scientifically as people think.

U researchers are currently involved in a $10.3 million dollar project developing a prosthetic arm designed to look, feel and move like a real arm.

The research is part of a $55 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense and of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 project sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Greg Clark, who is leading the project at the U, said that researchers are focusing on a nerve interface, which will help communication between nerves in the upper arm and the artificial limb.

The process, Clark said, is like wiretapping into nerves and brain waves.

“When someone has a thought, the electrical impulses will go through the spinal cord to the limb,” Clark said. “We are going to be picking up signals of non-existent nerves and sending them to the artificial arm.”

Clark said this process will help create a more natural movement for the artificial arm because current limb prosthetics make many separate movements instead of one connected reaction to move a finger or a muscle.

The signals will be sent to the arm using a small device implanted into a remaining part of the limb or shoulder and a small computer worn around the waist. The device will use a modified Utah Electrode Array-developed by U professor Richard Normann-that contains 100 electrodes, which will help the limb communicate with the arm.

Another big part of the project is the ability to restore sense of touch using artificial sensors for pressure that will send electrical signals back to the brain.

“We want the arm to truly feel like their arm,” Clark said. So when they perform tasks, they cannot only move naturally, but they will also be able to feel they are performing the task.

“Arms are not just tools; they are important means of interacting, self-expression and communicating with other people,” said Clark, who hopes that the nerve interface will create an opportunity for people with artificial limbs to be able to function normally.

Actual experiments have not yet begun, but according to Nick Brown, research assistant professor in orthopedics, they will begin soon.

Researchers in departments of bioengineering, orthopedics and others will be helping to develop the technology, as well as make the device wireless, contained and effective, Clark said. They also need to test the effectiveness of the device over long periods of time, said Brown.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to help people return to daily living and function,” Brown said. “And to make lives better for people.”