Pentagon Program Moves Forward On Brain-Controlled Prosthetic
When you see the videos, you may think of Star Trek and The Borg. But a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration priority review program for exceptional medical devices will fast-track a DARPA-funded, brain-controlled prosthetic arm.
The arm, which was developed at a cost of over $100 million by DARPA and Johns Hopkins University over the past five years, is controlled by a microchip in the brain. The microchip records neuron activity and decodes the signals to activate motor neurons that control the prosthetic.
DAPRA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is part of the Pentagon and may be most familiar to netizens as the agency that jumpstarted the Internet. The Iraq War has been a driver for the project.
At the briefing, a U.S. Army spokesman said the microchip may be ready for clinical trial within six months. The initial test will involve five patients who will receive the implant; they will be monitored for a year. Assuming the trials are successful, the prosthetics should be available commercially in four to five years. One challenge for the project: silicon chips embedded in wet tissue have a short lifespan.
Last summer, Johns Hopkins was hoping to test the arm with five patients before the end of the year. Now the goal is by the end of this summer. Other institutions involved in the project include the California Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Utah.
This sounds very science fiction-y and advanced, but Johns Hopkins is not the first to integrate a prosthetic arm with a human brain.
In May 2010, the BBC reported that a 21-year-old Austrian man was the first person to use a mind-controlled robotic limb to drive a car. The prosthetic was developed by Otto Bock Healthcare, a German firm.
Also last year, the University of Pittsburgh successfully embedded neural implants in the brain of a monkey, allowing it to control a prosthetic arm with only its thoughts.
In 2007, Popular Mechanics gave DARPA’s “Proto 2″ — which could facilitate 27 types of movement — its “Breakthrough Award.” This was a major advance over Proto 1, which could only move seven ways. The researchers, housed at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, had hoped to have an arm that that moved, looked and felt “human” by 2009. Clearly, they missed that milestone. [Watch the video.]
In 2009, 60 Minutes featured the DEKA arm, a different DARPA prosthetic project. In 2008, the DEKA arm (“Luke Arm”) demonstrated a neural interface that was controlled by pads under the feet. The arm itself was attached to shoulder muscles. However, the DEKA arm remains in development.
Until now, the most successful prosthetics have been legs, not arms. Dr. Geoffrey Ling told 60 Minutes:
If you look at your hand, it’s an incredibly complex piece of machine. What nature provides us is extraordinary. The opposable thumb, the five finger independently moving, articulating fingers. It’s fantastic what this does.
Although the arm may be commercially available in 2015, it won’t be cheap. And that’s why Jonathan Kuniholm — who lost part of his right arm while serving in Iraq — launched the Open Prosthetics Project, an open-source collaboration. Kuniholm spoke with NPR’s Fresh Air in November 2009.
More about the fast-track initiative.
FDA Video : 2011
Fast Company has an edited version of the FDA broadcast that features a demo of the prosthetic arm.
University of Pittsburg Video : 2010
CBS 60 Minutes : 2009