What’s in the future of prosthetic limbs?
Integrating newer technology into prostheses can be divided into three general categories:
- changing the materials used to build prostheses
- how signals from the brain can control the prostheses
- how the prosthesis limb itself can adjust to different movements.
3D-printing limbs with plastic filament lowers the final cost of limbs. It also allows for customisation. This can be especially helpful for very young amputees. It makes limbs cheaper to replace as they grow, and also makes the prosthetic limb something cool as opposed to something weird or different. Malaysian organisations providing 3D-printed limbs include the E-NABLE Nusantara chapter, based in Johor, and Delta Bionics, based in Perak.
Prostheses coverings can now also be printed using silicon, which makes them lighter, durable and easy to match to existing skin tones. Silicone is also bacteria-resistant, hypoallergenic, biologically compatible, and works well when combined with other materials.
Prostheses can be designed to fit the activity or work of their users. For example, Paralympians may run with blade prosthetics. For those doing heavy-duty work, more durable steel and titanium prostheses can better hold up to tasks.
Control systems can be built into prosthetic limbs to work as a ‘brain’. It receives signals from the wearer’s brain and interprets them to move motors inside the limb. This makes moving around safer, faster, and more fluid. Advanced limbs can even
- save preset grips
- be connected to apps
- help users to walk on slopes or rough terrain
- respond to Bluetooth signals to activate specific movements.
Direct mind-to-limb control
Some prosthetic limbs do not have an attached ‘brain’, but instead use myoelectric sensors. These detect the natural electric signals given off my muscles and use them to help the limb move.
Prosthetic limbs will also be able to restore the wearer’s sense of touch. By implanting a device into nerves and connecting it to electrodes in the muscles, movement and grip can be translated into signals the brain recognises as touch.
New signal-decoding technology
Current powered prosthetics ‘learn’ how to move through pattern recognition. Training these patterns can be difficult and tiring for the user. However, scientists are developing a generic computer modules that copy the natural structures of the forearm, wrist and hand. This results in a shorter, easier period ‘teaching’ the limb how to work. It makes using the prosthetic easier and more intuitive.
Many new developments are coming, or are already here, to make using a prosthetic limb easier, more natural, and in some cases more fun. These technologies can be expensive. But with more widespread use, costs can come down and the technology can be made gradually more accessible to all income levels.
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