More than 2,000 members of the armed forces have suffered amputated limbs since 2000. However, DARPA has recently created new nerve and muscle interfaces that allow for more advanced prosthetics that can be controlled directly through the user's existing nerves.
The program, called Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET), started out by researching the long-term potential of brain interfaces. The goal of the research is to develop high-performance interfaces that are also reliable. These new interfaces use signals from nerves and muscles to control prosthetics. But even better, these interfaces can provide direct sensory feedback that would also give users the ability to feel.
DARPA states that this new research and the interfaces being developed by RE-NET have better bionic performance and reliability than anything that has been previously tested. Also, implanting such interfaces is done through a lower risk and less invasive procedure, giving it a better solution for amputees. In fact, the RE-NET program has already begun to work with injured soldiers on these new prosthetic interfaces.
One of these interfaces targets muscle re-innervation. This means that by rewiring nerves from the amputated limbs, new interfaces give the prosthetics control over existing muscles. To demonstrate the new sense of touch that the interface also offers, researchers used a flat interface nerve electrode (FINE). By interfacing FINE with residual nerves in a partial arm, some sense of touch in the fingers was restored.
RE-NET is a step up from existing prosthetic limb control systems that rely on visual feedback. Direct sensory feedback allows patients to move their hand without keeping their eyes on it. This makes something like sorting through a bag of small items to find one particular item much easier for today’s amputees.
DARPA plans to continue working with these interfaces up until 2016. Let’s hope more of the wounded can benefit from their hard work. The age of the cyborg may be upon us.