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In January, wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), Bethesda, Maryland, were using a new neurally controlled prosthetic arm—the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL)—for the first time. That event dovetailed Neuroprosthetics 2012, a symposium held February 23 and sponsored by the Bioengineering Institute (BEI) Center for Neuroprosthetics at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Massachusetts, where that very arm was one of the topics of discussion.
Colonel Geoffrey Ling, MD, PhD, program manager, Defense Sciences Office, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was one of the event's keynote speakers. He highlighted the MPL, one of two prosthetic arms currently being created, developed, and tested as part of DARPA's multi-year Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) program. The other is a noninvasive arm that is controlled by foot switches, body motion, and local control.
"The goal," Ling said, "is to deliver an arm deserving of the patients who are waiting." Another goal, he said, is for the MPL to become available commercially sometime this year.
The 2012 international symposium brought together a record 200-plus academic, industry, and government leaders in prosthetics research and development to discuss the state of the field and to advance collaborations that will push next-generation artificial limbs and prosthetic devices closer to clinical applications, with an emphasis on neural interfaces and enablers for advanced prosthetic function.
Ling proved to be the perfect afternoon speaker. As Ling informed the attendees about the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, his witty delivery kept the audience laughing. He told the audience that though "great advances" have been made for lower-limb loss with prosthetic legs and feet, such is not the case for upper-limb loss.
Hugh Herr, PhD, associate professor of media arts and sciences and director of the Media Lab Biomechatronics Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, gave the morning keynote address, which focused on the longstanding goal in rehabilitation science to apply neuromechanical principles of human movement to the development of highly functional prostheses and orthoses. Herr explained that critical to this effort is the development of actuator technologies— device architectures that resemble the body's own musculoskeletal design and control methodologies that exploit principles of biological movement.
Kip Ludwig, PhD, program director in repair and plasticity, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), gave an overview of current trends in neurotechnology and discussed the necessary steps to translate these device concepts to meaningful improvements in patients' health, function, and quality of life.
"Over the last 30 years, proof-of-concept laboratory experiments have shown that neuroprosthetic devices have great promise to reduce the burden of numerous neurological disorders," Ludwig told the audience.
Despite this promise, however, "relatively few" neuroprosthetics have been taken beyond laboratory experiments, and even fewer have progressed beyond "first-in-human" feasibility studies to provide meaningful, long-term improvements in patient quality of life, he said. "To truly revolutionize patient care and achieve widespread user acceptance, [neuroprosthetic devices] must make the leap from experimental studies in the lab or clinic to robust and reliable at-home patient use."
Moderator Christopher Lambert, PhD, research associate professor at WPI's BEI, said the symposium was a success because collaboration, including the social discussions that took place in addition to the conference, is the organizing principle for life sciences research, education, and technology development at WPI.
A date for the next Neuroprosthetics symposium has not yet been set.