Neuro-Prosthetic Limbs, Makes Walking Look Easy
Everyday of summer vacation was another day for Eric to go out and experience the wilderness of suburban Montreal. There he was, a ten-year-old boy playing a great game of soccer with his friends. However something happened that day that changed his life forever. He missed a wide-open net! All of the young kids started laughing and making fun of him, so Eric ran to get the ball that way he wouldn’t be able to hear them. He was running so quickly with tears of embarrassment in his eyes and ideas of revenge on his mind that he completely forgot to look both ways while running towards the ball. Suddenly the only sound you heard from a three block radius was the sound of tires skidding as the Civic tried to stop in time. BAM! Eric was tossed over the hood of the car and ended up on the road behind it. No one knew how to react, not even the driver of the car. In fact, he just called the ambulance and drove off. By the time Eric got to the hospital, the surgeon sat with his parents and told them that it would be nearly impossible to fix Eric’s leg. He would need to get it amputated. Ever since that day, Eric has been taking life one limp at a time.
Ever since that day I would always try to make him feel the same as he did before the incident. However, when it came to sports it was nearly impossible to hide what was reality. He would just sit on a chair and commentate while we would all be playing. I promised him that I would make his life easy again, that I will help him play like he used to. To this day I will never go back on that promise, some might say that he is what my whole life became about. My studies in engineering are to help him, he’s my best friend, even though he tells me ‘Mass it’s ok I’m used to it now it’s been 10 years.’ Then I look at him, smile and tell him ‘You know that won’t change anything.’ Neuro-Prosthetic limbs are still in research and there have been a few trials in recent months, but nothing that is promising. By the time I finish my studies I will begin to work as hard as I can with a team a great engineers to find the solution and make Neuro-prosthetic limbs a reality.
The work of a mechanical engineer is to innovate the world and make it easier to live in. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers “It’s about translating theoretical research into practical solutions and applications which are used by society.”1 For example, at first engineers where discussing that they shouldn’t make smart phone, because no one would use it. They all rejected it at first because they didn’t see the importance or need to send emails on the go or to have mobile video chat. The reason they pursued in smart phones was when they saw the popularity and response by the public, which is when the number signs popped up in their eyes. Most engineers do it for the money, but there are a few that care about helping the world. Those few are the one that don’t ignore more specialised projects, like Neuro-prosthetic limbs. There have been a few recent projects that have started to create Neuro-prosthetic limbs, which will target amputees and people that are paralyzed. More closely, Mcgill University has their very own Neural Prosthetics Lab where they dedicate research in different aspects of implants for the brain and body. Their projects have led them to the development of low power circuits that can be mounted on the skull for signal conditioning. As a mechanical engineer, I have acquired skills that can one day help build high-end computerised prosthetic limbs. Skills like the electro-magnetivity that will be involved in the implants, as well as the procedures that will take place to make the actual prosthetic limb. The importance of this advancement is quite obvious and the motive is clear. For amputees to have the chance to live their lives as they’ve always known to live it without any discomfort or change in their lifestyle.
I won’t go into specific and precision about Neuro-prosthetic technology because without an engineering degree, it would be like giving an 8 year-old kid a calculus problem. But the concept of how it will all work it relatively simple. The prosthetic limb will be electronically powered and attached to small “microchips” that will be surgically planted directly on the brain. The wires attaching the microchips to the limb will be hidden under the skin. This will make the wires look like veins; this way trauma will be reduced and you wont have to worry about wires getting tangled. According to Whitacre, “the basic idea is that electrodes would pick up signals from neurons”2. This creates artificial nerves, which Hearne describes as “allowing prosthetic limbs to come under somatic nervous system control.”3 This allows picking up an object possible, as well as being able to walk down a staircase without the need of a railing.
People might be worried that society will look and treat them differently if they see a mechanical limb attached to their body. That kids will stop what they are doing and say, ‘Look mommy a robot.’ This is not the case according to the Poly Tech Research Center, they argue that “the future prosthetic arm will be covered by a sensitive polymer skin.”4 The polymer skin will be engineered to look and feel exactly as skin does. This will be like a glove that you just slip on. Which would be as easy as putting your sock on in the morning.
The quality of life will improve significally for the amputees once the neuro-prosthetic limbs are developed. According to O’Keeffe “Tactile sensation is a challenge for which a solution is yet to emerge and any form of proprioception achieved by a patient is an indirect consequence of their acquired skill in using the prosthetic device.”5 It is hard for an amputee to start living with a prosthetic. They need to take classes at a center to learn how to walk with a prosthetic. Also it is not easy for them to wake up and have no leg, which they need to then get traumatic help. The ease that comes with neuro-prosthetic limbs is a big reason why it should be developed. Of course you would still need to get used to the idea of it, but the physical adjustment is close to none.
I had the privilege to interview an amputee to talk about what he went through and if he knows about neuro-prosthetic limbs. Gregory is a retired sheet metal worker who lost his arm when he was forty-five. Gregory had been working for that company for twenty years at the time. He told me “the day I lost my arm I also lost my head. I started hating the world.” He was in a dark place and didn’t want anything to do with the world. In fact he would spend his days in his home just watching TV and complaining about everything. However, once he got his life back on track thanks to some therapy sessions. He told me “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t show my wife how much I love her. I’m thankful that the monster I had become didn’t scare her away.” When I asked him if he would like to be able to go back to living like he used to. He looked at me smiled and said that “there isn’t a day that goes by that I wouldn’t want to be back in the shop. The smell of the oils burning, the sound of metal clinging together, but what I miss the most is having two working hands.” When I mentioned neuro-prosthetic limbs he didn’t really know what I was talking about. So I explained to him that it’s a ‘robotic arm’ that will be directly connected to your nervous system, which will make it possible to work as a fully functioning arm. He instantly understood the big picture and said, ‘well why hasn’t it been invented yet?’
So why is it that neuro-prosthetic limbs aren’t being developed? Well the answer is that most of the people in the world don’t need this advancement. You see when the donors sit down and think about where to donate they think about it objectively. Peter Singer gives this example “The local art museum asks a wealthy donor for $100,000 to help fund a new wing, while another seeks donations to fight an infectious eye disease that blinds children in developing countries. Research indicates that $100,000 could prevent 1,000 people from losing their sight, making this the more deserving cause.”6 He is comparing the choice of giving the same amount of money towards two different causes. However if we compare neuro-prosthetic limbs to cancer research there is a huge difference in funding. In an analysis conducted by NanoWerk, “the U.S. Congress has allocated $1.6 million to the Center for Neuro-prosthetics.”7 In the modern day, 1.6 million for research is not enough and we know this because of Chen’s research article ‘Where Do Millions of Cancer Research Dollars Go Every Year?’ “The National Cancer Institution has spent some $90 billion on research and treatment during that time.”8 If 90 billion isn’t enough to find a cure for cancer than how will 1.6 million even come close to helping the development of neuro-prosthetic limbs. Don’t we want everyone to have the same chance at life?
For Eric, Gregory and many others like them neuro-prosthetic limbs is the key to happiness. If neuro-prosthetic limbs get created then they will finally have the same quality of life as they used to. Not only will people stop treating them differently because of the way they look, but also they will feel more confident being able to function again. If proper funding were established to the advancement of neuro-prosthetics then a positive change would occur in the world. Grants, research, donations and widespread recognition will affect millions of lives and garner those suffering with this disability a new hope for the future.