Prosthetic Innovation: New Study Shows People with Leg Amputations Control Prosthetic Limbs with Their Brains

Boston, Massachusetts – Scientists at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brigham and Women’s Hospital have made a groundbreaking discovery in the field of prosthetics. Their research, recently published in the journal Nature Medicine, has shown that individuals with leg amputations are now able to control their prosthetic limbs using their brains, leading to more natural movements and improved navigation of obstacles.

Unlike traditional robotic prostheses that rely on preprogrammed commands, this new technology creates a direct connection between the user’s nervous system and their prosthetic leg, allowing for real-time adjustments based on the user’s brain signals. This advancement marks the first successful demonstration of fully neural-controlled bionic walking, offering hope for a new generation of prosthetic devices that can provide users with greater independence and mobility.

One of the key challenges with current robotic prostheses is their limited adaptability to varying terrains and obstacles. Users often have little control over the prosthetic limb once it is in motion, making it difficult to navigate uneven surfaces or unexpected changes in terrain. However, by linking the brain directly to the prosthetic limb, users can now experience a sense of embodiment where the artificial limb feels like a natural extension of their body.

The study involved 14 participants, half of whom underwent a new surgical approach called the Agonist-antagonist Myoneural Interface (AMI) for below-knee amputations. This innovative procedure aims to address the limitations of traditional amputation surgeries by preserving important muscle connections and providing valuable muscular feedback to the user.

Researchers fitted all participants with a novel bionic limb equipped with advanced technology, including a prosthetic ankle, muscle activity sensors, and surface electrodes. This setup allows the brain to send electrical signals to the muscles, causing them to contract and produce their own signals that are then translated into movement by small computers on the prosthesis.

The results of the study were promising, with participants who underwent the AMI procedure showing less muscle atrophy, reduced phantom pain, and improved muscle sensations compared to those who underwent traditional amputations. These individuals were able to walk faster, with a more natural gait, and demonstrated better adaptability to various surfaces and obstacles.

The potential impact of this technology is significant, with researchers envisioning a future where individuals can regain full functionality after major limb loss through advanced prosthetic devices. The team hopes to make the novel prosthesis commercially available within the next five years, bringing a new level of independence and mobility to amputees worldwide.