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Robot science in reach for humans

By Matthew Knight for CNN
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(CNN) -- The 19th Century American lawyer turned author Christian Nestell Bovee once said, "It is the nature of thought to find its way into action."

A 26-year-old amputee from Maryland in the United States is living 21st Century proof of the power of the mind.

When former U.S. Marine Claudia Mitchell lost her arm at the shoulder in a motorcycle accident in 2004, she doubted whether she would ever get her old life back.

But with the aid of Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) under the direction of doctor Todd Kuiken, Mitchell has been able to transform her life and with it transform the possibilities for amputees in the future.

The RIC, in association with the Neural Engineering Center for Artificial Limbs (NECAL), has pioneered a muscle reinnervation procedure which takes an amputee's own nerves and then connects them to healthy tissue.

The operation was successfully trialed four years ago when Jesse Sullivan, a double amputee had four nerves transferred from his shoulder to the muscles in his chest.

Once the nerves were embedded in his pectoral muscle, the prosthetic arm -- which has electrodes that detect muscle activity -- was then able to respond to his thoughts. If he thought "open hand", the electrodes detected the nerve activity and the arm responded accordingly.

Mitchell's arm, which weighs five kilograms and contains six small motors, is a further step towards a more full range of movement.

With six nerves transplanted to her chest, she is able to perform more complex procedures.

"It has changed my life dramatically", she said, "I use it to help with cooking, for holding a laundry basket and all kinds of daily tasks. My life is more rewarding and active."

In the future it is hoped that electrodes in the hand will send signals up the arm to the skin on the chest, which in turn will deliver a message to the brain. This will allow the patient the perception of sensation.

The fictional bionic man famously cost $6 million. In real life, Claudia Mitchell's bionic arm cost just 1 per cent of that figure totaling around $60,000.

According to Gregory Clark, a professor in bioengineering at the University of Utah, a natural arm is able to make 22 discrete movements.

The hope is that future prosthetic limbs will be able to perform much like a normal arm.

With scientists in the UK having recently developed technology that enables artificial limbs to be attached directly to the skeleton using a titanium rod, the prospects for more complex prosthetic limbs are wrestled from the grasp of science fiction films and books and become an astonishing reality.

At the end of the 21st Century, neural engineers will look back at the work of the scientists at RIC and NECAL and view them as pioneers. Their advances are probably just the tip of the iceberg.


Claudia Mitchell demonstates her "bionic" arm.

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