The human hand – four fingers and a thumb. When we lose it due to injury, we’ve lost something that truly makes us human. That’s a key reason why the Pentagon’s “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” program, a $100 million multi-disciplinary effort in science and engineering is so important. It is working towards building a robotic arm with a fully functioning hand — a feat never before accomplished in medicine.
The need for such a development is accentuated by the number of wounded soldiers returning home after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, many having suffered the amputation of their arm. “We’ve made great strides in developing artificial legs, but a good functioning prosthetic arm has not been remotely possible,” says Geoffrey Ling, an Army colonel and neurologist who heads the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, a massive project which involves more than 300 scientists (including engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists). Duplicating the intricate nature and interaction of the arm and hand in a highly functioning prosthetic poses a challenge, says Geoffrey, who adds that the current artificial arm used today has not changed much since World War II.
“If you look at your hand, it’s an incredibly complex piece of machine,” he says. “What nature provides us is extraordinary. The opposable thumb, the five finger independently moving, articulating fingers –it’s fantastic what this does. In fact it is the opposable thumb which helps separate us from other animal species and helps make us human.” He is determined to give that humanity back to patients. His project is run out of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the military — the same agency that oversaw the creation of night vision, stealth aircraft and GPS.
How do you think Col. Ling and his colleagues will connect this artificial limb to the nervous system of an amputee?
Read more about Col. Geoffrey Ling here.
And watch this incredible program on Col. Ling and the program he leads: