Super Developments in Myoelectric Prosthetics

For a long time we’ve been infatuated with super beings built from a perfectly executed mix of normal human anatomy and impossibly powerful technology-driven artificial limbs and appendages. The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, RoboCop, Iron Man, and of course Terminator 2 (not the other ones because he’s a villan.) We like the idea that someone super like that can be built…. if even in our minds.

Judgement Day is upon us, and it’s looking like a real blockbuster in the world of prosthetic technology. So maybe we aren’t quite ready to lift school busses full of children, our twirl so fast we can counteract a hurricane from hitting the coast. But the development of myoelectric control targeted reinnervation (TMR) is allowing people to move their artificial limb… just by thinking about it. This in itself is not new, but the wider availability to the marketplace is growing, and the technology behind myoelectric prosthetics isn’t just for upper limbs anymore.

Myoelectric prosthetics are externally mechanized limbs that function through the natural signals of a person’s muscles. The term “Myoelectric” describes the natural electricity generated by our own muscles. So in a nutshell, a myoelectric-controlled prosthesis is an artificial limb controlled with those naturally generated electric muscle signals coming from your brain.

The first electric powered hand was developed in 1943 by Jacob Hufner (often referred to as “The Hufner Hand”), which was a turning point in prosthetics. It inspired a meeting two years later – of military personnel, surgeons, prosthetists, and engineers. This meeting is recognized as the beginning of the prosthetics research and development program by the U.S. government, ultimately resulting in the establishment of the Committee on Prosthetics Research and Development (CPRD.) From here, the future became very bright for technical innovation in prosthetics – 0ff to the races! Literally.

Today, most of us have seen the beautiful, aerodynamic blade-like legs that have taken athletes all the way to the Olympic Games. But the greatest leaps in this technology haven’t been made by legs, but by hands – using intuitive myoelectric control targeted reinnervation. In layman’s terms? Redirecting nerve fibers so your brain can move your artificial limb. See, after amputation, your peripheral nerves still carry “orders to move” from the brain, but they can’t reach the destination, because it’s gone. Through surgery, TMR redirects those nerve signals to another part of the body, such as the chest. When the patient wants to move their arm, the signal goes to the chest muscle, causing it to contract and send electrical control signals to their myoelectric prosthetics.

As of 2017, intuitive myoelectric technology for lower limbs is finally leaving the laboratory and is headed into the marketplace, thanks to Islandic Prosthetic Solution Company Ossur and inventor/amputee Gudmundur Olafsson, who led the development of the brain-controlled “Proprio Foot.” We have come a long way from the wooden leg.

Man and machine, science and technology, innovation and progress. Who are the real heros behind it all? The people developing the technology, that’s for sure. We are grateful for each and every person working to advance myoelectric prosthetics and the wisdom of prosthetic development.

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The Jordan Thomas Foundation’s donor kids may not be The Bionic Woman, Iron Man, or The Terminator (2!) but they are the real superheros to us. If you would like to learn more about our superheros, check out our JTF Donor Kids page… or if you’d like to be a superhero to us, click here to donate and help them rewrite the script in favor of a happy ending. Thank you.


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