Bionic arm gives hope for amputees
Glen Lehman, who lost is arm in combat in Iraq, demonstrates a bionic limb.
February 17th, 2011
12:59 PM ET

Bionic arm gives hope for amputees

An amputation takes away bone and muscle, but the connecting nerves that once controlled the arm are still there, and they're capable of sending commands to the muscles and receiving sensation, even from a missing nerve. They are, in a sense, like data cables floating in space.

This is the basis for technology developed by Dr. Todd Kuiken, director of the Center for Bionic Medicine and director of Amputee Services at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. 

His prosthetics make use of limb-controlling nerves that remain in amputees to allow them to better control prosthetics just by thinking. He presented his latest advancements Thursday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.  Glen Lehman, a retired sergeant first class who suffered a battlefield amputation in Iraq, showcased Kuiken's prototype.

"The arm is pretty much in tune with my thoughts," Lehman said at the conference.

Here's how it works: Kuiken's group put the nerves once used in motor control of the missing limb on to spare muscles, usually, the pectoralis muscles of the chest. In a technique called "targeted muscle reinnervation," the scientists cut out the nerves in the chest muscle and implanted in their place the main nerves that had controlled the now-missing arm. The arms nerves then began to grow within chest muscle.

"If you think 'hand closing,' it goes to your brain, down your spinal cord, through the hand-closing nerve, and that makes a little piece of your chest muscle contract," he told CNN before the presentation.

The small contraction of the chest muscle sends an electrical signal picked up by tiny antennae implanted on the chest muscle, which in turn broadcast the message to a receiver in the prosthetic, telling the hand to close. It works the same with hand opening and moving the elbow up and down, with other nerves.

The surgery itself takes only a couple of hours, and can be an outpatient procedure. But it can take three months before the patient experiences the first twitches, and six months before the nerves reinnervate the muscle well enough to get fitted with a special arm.

There are about 50 patients around the world who are using this technology with conventional prostheses - in other words, more rudimentary devices currently available for use outside of the laboratory, Kuiken said. They are more rudimentary than the bionic arm that Lehman demonstrated. Conventional prostheses have hands that only open and close, elbows and wrist rotators; they don't have the ability to use the elbow and the hand at the same time, and can be confusing to use, Kuiken said. Kuiken's technology allows the patient to use the elbow and the hand simultaneously, in a more intuitive way.

The research also points to a potential mechanism for sensation feedback. For instance, if there were sensors on the prosthetic hand to detect how hard the patient is squeezing the hand, that sensory information can be fed back up through the arm and press on the corresponding skin (which is now on the chest) with a proportional amount of force.

The degree of sensation isn't as good as the human finger, but about as good as the chest skin not being used for this system. Patients can feel normal hot and cold, although it feels like it's in the missing hand, as well as pressure and vibration. Sometimes, though, instead of pressure there's a tingling sensation. About six patients have had this sensory part of the surgery; it's only been done in the laboratory and there's currently no way to clinically implement it, but that is an eventual goal.

In recent years, Kuiken and colleagues have been working on more nuanced hand movements, and they have been collaborating with the U.S. Army in helping patients. The scientists are comfortable trying their technique on patients under 50 who had upper-limb amputations as much as five or 10 years ago, Kuiken said.

They believe that this could also be a treatment for painful nerves, which don't have anywhere to go and form a tangled ball called a neuroma. This problem could be solved by cutting a motor nerve and letting it grow into a muscle, spreading out the nerve problems, this could solve the problem.

Theoretically, this could also be done with legs, and Kuiken has just started some research in this area, but the idea of motorized legs is much newer than motorized arms, which have been around for about 50 years. Also, more is at stake: "If you fall down because you thought wrong, that's a problem," he said.

soundoff (250 Responses)
  1. Cieje Valentine

    Let me tell you about the man I met when I was young.....

    February 17, 2011 at 16:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • o.c.

      this wasnt god's doing. this was science and the genius of a SCIENTIST

      February 17, 2011 at 22:29 | Report abuse |
    • Answerman28

      @Southern style
      Please get back in your trailer.. and dont ever breed.

      February 17, 2011 at 22:30 | Report abuse |
    • Eric

      @southern style: Prosthetics. Prayerful. When. Mysterious. Actively. I guess God didn't bless you with the ability to spell.

      February 18, 2011 at 07:57 | Report abuse |
    • Greg

      I hope this technology doesn't fall into the hands of Dr. Otto Octavius.

      February 18, 2011 at 11:11 | Report abuse |
    • Brian

      Nice reference. I don't think anyone else got it, Joe.

      This is great work they are doing and will hopefully lead to improved lives for amputees.

      February 18, 2011 at 11:42 | Report abuse |
    • HotDogInBuns


      February 18, 2011 at 13:03 | Report abuse |
    • Church

      I smiled, and after reading that 'southern style' fool's post on this article, I needed that. Thanks.

      January 10, 2012 at 03:48 | Report abuse |
  2. Phil

    They've been doing this since the 1980's.

    February 17, 2011 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • John

      China doesn't have anything like this though. They probably have prosthetics that look like a block of wood.

      February 17, 2011 at 21:04 | Report abuse |
    • Emigdio

      More like that cheap, toxic plastic in childrens toys.

      February 17, 2011 at 21:14 | Report abuse |
    • John

      There is a significant distinction between what they were doing years ago and what they are doing now. Previously the movements were also triggered by muscles but NOT by the actual nerves of the missing limb. Before when you wanted to close the hand you had to think to move some other muscle that was mapped to the hand. This took a lot of retraining (e.g. Ok, I want to close my hand. Think about moving your ear). Now you think of closing your hand.

      February 18, 2011 at 11:56 | Report abuse |
  3. Rick

    Look at that pic! haha! Wonder what HIS thoughts are?

    February 17, 2011 at 20:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Amy

      You're talking about a veteran who lost his arm in Iraq. Have a little freaking respect!!

      February 18, 2011 at 02:17 | Report abuse |
    • Chris Meece

      Amy, I am sure that veteran would have a sense of humor and laugh at that. And Rick, that is wrong on so many levels. hehe

      February 18, 2011 at 10:05 | Report abuse |
    • Me Too

      What if he tried yanking it and the fake hand ripped it off, like John Bobbit? Imagine looking at your mechanical hand holding your thing, with all the veins and tissue hanging off the base, and you look down at a bloody stump. Try explaining that to the paramedics.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:05 | Report abuse |
    • Urkle

      His thought is, "Will this rip my dick off?"

      October 17, 2013 at 17:17 | Report abuse |
  4. Glorifundel

    Science, its Freaking Important.

    February 17, 2011 at 20:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • XWngLady

      lol...you said a mouthful.

      February 17, 2011 at 20:55 | Report abuse |
  5. j

    i love this kind of stuff 😀

    February 17, 2011 at 20:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Falkon


    February 17, 2011 at 21:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Matthew Koehler

    I just hope these wounded vets aren't paying a dime for this!

    February 17, 2011 at 21:04 | Report abuse | Reply
    • muddy1015

      Have you offered any donations?

      February 18, 2011 at 09:33 | Report abuse |
  8. Michael F.

    I've been waiting for a long time for this to happen. Im glad we have advance technology today and i cant wait for something new to come out tomorrow.

    February 17, 2011 at 21:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. josh

    It's called the Luke ARM and Dean Karen has already made advancements well beyond the are in this story.

    It's great to see arms making the advancements that are needed for our wounded vet's

    February 17, 2011 at 21:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Patchy

    Now others who have had their hands cut off with lightsabers can have hope!

    February 17, 2011 at 21:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Jon

    It's sad that these programs are being cut by Obama's budget proposal. Please copy the link and view Veterans Affairs!
    http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Overview Straight from the official source.

    February 17, 2011 at 21:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Floh

      I am considering doing a fall nnaltipg schedule. I actually have a bunch of weeks already worked out, but I haven't figured out how to coordinate it all yet. If I have time, I will be putting it together this fall.

      April 14, 2012 at 15:06 | Report abuse |
  12. FinallyJackOn

    I can finally pleasure myself without exerting any energy. Thats what I call "efficiency!"

    February 17, 2011 at 21:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Sarah

    A nieghbour's son lost his arm last month! He is only 4 yrs old! Mind u, I never asked how the accident happened! You joke about these things but these people are doin their best to make amps have a better life quality! Not all people that lose limbs are war vets! Grow up! I'm also sure the vets that volenteered to do the arm experiments never paid a cent so don't get ur panties in a twist!

    February 17, 2011 at 21:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Anne

    My good friend lost his leg from the hip from a horrifying car accident at 18. His prosthetic causes him pain every day. But yes. Let's joke about what a breakthrough this is. It doesn't affect you, so who cares?

    February 17, 2011 at 21:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Seraphim0

      I guess your friend lost a sense of humor as well?

      February 18, 2011 at 11:29 | Report abuse |
  15. Jimmynog

    But the big question is: Can he flog the bald bishop with it?

    February 17, 2011 at 21:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Sari

    I I can't believe this!!! My friend needed this because of amputation a few days ago! I just am amazed that this is happening now.

    February 17, 2011 at 21:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. southern style

    PRAISE THE LORD!!!! GOD works in misteryous way, he treat us like his pets ..... he gave a good things win we are good and bad thing win we are bad .... case n point we get prosectics for our activly praierful activity and get thing like that gorila oBUMba win we act like goofs ......AMERECA IS TRUELY GOD'S LAND!!!!

    February 17, 2011 at 22:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Anne

      Shouldn't that be "Praise the innovative thinking of scientists?" Just a thought.

      February 17, 2011 at 22:18 | Report abuse |
    • FM

      Nice southern. Very mature of you.

      February 17, 2011 at 22:19 | Report abuse |
    • southern style

      FM you need to respect your eldiers, JESUS saves those who folow hes path not ppl who folow a devils lifestlye .... so why dont you go bake to san fran and git gay with sumthin, the rest of amereca will act like GODS true folowers and preech HIS word

      February 17, 2011 at 22:29 | Report abuse |
    • Jimmynog

      southern, you are an example of what happens when relatives interbreed, and then don't go to school.

      February 18, 2011 at 08:06 | Report abuse |
    • HamatoKameko


      Thought you ought to know.

      February 18, 2011 at 10:58 | Report abuse |
    • tommas

      "God" has only hindered the progress of science throughout history, it is because of the ever growing absence of his influence and that of other mythologies that our society progresses.

      February 18, 2011 at 11:20 | Report abuse |
    • dave

      Go back to the hills billy.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:03 | Report abuse |
    • The Jackdaw

      There is no God. Get an education.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:21 | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      If everyone leaves southern style alone, he might play us something on his Banjo again......

      February 18, 2011 at 12:40 | Report abuse |
    • Church

      Religion has destroyed so much in the way of potential in scientific advancement that to claim this as God's work borders on a vile insult. The Catholic church alone has stood against Galileo, contraceptives, and stem cell research among other things all to appease their own sense of moral superiority. Fundamental Islamists like Boko Haram would slaughter people by the dozens than risk an ounce of 'western education' potentially 'corrupting' people, or say, perhaps, letting them not die of tetanus.

      Religion has given us divisions and problems. Science has given us advances and solutions (delicious science pun intended).

      January 10, 2012 at 03:47 | Report abuse |
  18. Catharsis

    The question is...is this covered by your insurance company. They will find someway to DENY DENY DENY.

    February 17, 2011 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • AS

      this is pretty cool! too bad it's coming at a time when politicians' favorite catchphrase is "cut everything"

      to Catharsis - were you perchance referring to Ronnie Magro's signature remark on how he will approach s*** hitting the fan?

      February 17, 2011 at 22:19 | Report abuse |
    • jjheinis

      But that is the nature of capitalism. Remember, we live in Limbaughland. Nothing comes for free. As for health insurance, with the Tea Party in power, be grateful if you have access to health insurance at all. Remember, health is a privilege here in America.

      February 18, 2011 at 09:32 | Report abuse |
  19. TJ

    This isn't news, Luke Skywalker did this a long long time ago

    February 17, 2011 at 22:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • tommas

      Yeah, but that was in a galaxy far far away

      February 18, 2011 at 11:21 | Report abuse |
  20. Nidwaldner

    I'm glad to see this article discusses skin sensation which has been a major missing piece in prosthetic limbs. While this is exciting it is well known in the rehab world that in the past many people who got very expensive devices with the latest tech actually end up prefering low tech aides such as hooks because 1. they're easier to use and put on and 2. not being able to feel what they were picking up they needed to see (and too many of the latest developments were big and hindered vision). So before you start demanding the government buy every vet one of these, let's just make sure it's going to be functional for every day life.

    February 17, 2011 at 22:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. bob

    mans thoughts
    "I wonder if i can mastrubate in this thing"

    February 17, 2011 at 22:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Stan Stanlinson

    this is nice BUT it WILL cost a fortune!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 17, 2011 at 22:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Kornelious

    That is awesome. It's nice to see that we can still come up with some incredible stuff in the US!

    February 17, 2011 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Sarah

    Lol at Americans bein unable to have intellectual convo's without bashin one another! God BleSs America & kick a** scientists!

    February 17, 2011 at 22:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Just another retired NAVY VETERAN

    Thank GOD ! , for Scientists ; because The GOD , that I serve work through all human beings .........

    February 17, 2011 at 23:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KMATH

      Stop praising god for this stuff, you rednecks. I couldn't imagine talking to you daily about anything. Just uneducated ridiculousness.

      February 18, 2011 at 11:50 | Report abuse |
    • The Jackdaw

      Thank you KMATH.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:12 | Report abuse |
  26. Just another retired NAVY VETERAN

    Including those of us who excercise little and /or no Faith !

    February 17, 2011 at 23:34 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The Jackdaw

      And what was your fairytale thinking when he created me as a boisterous non-believer? Maybe he wants to see me convert after the miracle of the bionic limb….yeah, that must be it.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:17 | Report abuse |
  27. Flordell Kissee

    Hello my name is Flordell Kissee Cardwell. I want to know Are you looking for more test subject for you research project? If so I am willing volunteer! Please email me back an number to call so I can get more information.

    February 18, 2011 at 00:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Dr Bill Toth

    The 6 million dollar man comes to life.!! Live with Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    February 18, 2011 at 08:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. AA

    Its the ultimate stranger, well ultimate stranger besides having someone else do it.

    February 18, 2011 at 09:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. jjheinis

    With the United States becoming a permanent warfare state, stories like this will become routine. Sad, but true. Soldiers come into the service as very healthy young men and women and frequently emerge greatly changed, not always for the better. That comes with the nature of military service and the profession of war, one does not expect to become a casualty but frequently becomes one.

    February 18, 2011 at 09:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. Tom N

    stem cells can help with nerve regeneration

    February 18, 2011 at 09:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The Jackdaw

      Oh no! Stem cells are scary because they hurt the baby Jesus!
      Thank religion for halting progress.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:10 | Report abuse |
    • Common Sense

      I find Jackdaw lack of faith and intelligence disturbing.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:43 | Report abuse |
    • The Jackdaw

      Are you suggesting that all Jackdaws lack faith and are intelligent, or that all Jackdaws lack faith AND intelligence, or did you forget the " 's " when you intended to refer to just me, in which case I am not sure if you were insulting me or praising me for my lack of faith AND lack of intelligence or lack of faith and my stupendous intelligence. I simply need clarification. In the mean time, please do not use Jesus powers to choke me like Darth Vader when he found faith lacking people to be disturbing.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:48 | Report abuse |
  32. Cieje Valentine

    Dang, nobody got my Bionic Commando reference.

    February 18, 2011 at 09:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Mickey, NY

    And in Sarah Palin's case, lack of thought gives hope for Bimbonic limbs. This way she has something to write her speeches on.

    February 18, 2011 at 09:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The Jackdaw

      Maybe she will be able to see Russia with her robotic eyeballs.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:15 | Report abuse |
  34. Jerry

    Limbs like this are the the best thing that can happen to us. Yes, they are expensive but so was the Computer in the 1970's and 80's. 10 to 15 years from now we'll see these limbs on everyday people.

    February 18, 2011 at 10:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wiwitouta

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      April 8, 2012 at 20:31 | Report abuse |
  35. El Cajon

    That's swell.

    Too bad none of us will be able to afford it.

    February 18, 2011 at 11:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • The Jackdaw

      Dont worry, Americans buy things they can't afford every day.

      February 18, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse |
  36. ArtInChicago

    da da da daaaaaaa, da da da da da da da da daaaaaaaa.

    February 18, 2011 at 12:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. The Jackdaw


    February 18, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Yes1Fan

    The real progress will occur when they wire the ACTUAL nerves directly to prosthetic neural receptors. AMP, Inc. used to have a "pin-grid", which was a grid of spring-loaded conductors that would tranfer signals from anything electrical that they randomly touched. On the other side of the grid, the signals coming out of the matching fixed pins, could be mapped by function and wired to the desired purpose on the opposite side. I would think a prosthetic version of such a grid would be a fast way of accomplishing direct wiring of neural paths to mechanical ones.

    February 18, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Johnna

    This is just the beginning of an American cyborg army offensive. You wait and see, soon we will rule the earth!

    February 18, 2011 at 13:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  40. Jorge

    Thought-controlled arms...hmmmm, does this mean that when an amputee sees a cutie in a thong at the beach his hands will involuntarily start to rise over his head????

    February 18, 2011 at 13:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  41. Vera

    To learn more about the Breast Cancer Summit, take a look at this link: http://www.breasthealthandhealing.com/Summit/index.html#2010Summit

    February 18, 2011 at 17:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Julie20

    An amputation takes departed ivory and strength, but the conjunctive nerves that erstwhile pressurized.

    Prosthetics Philadelphia

    December 25, 2011 at 06:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Heidy Finklestein

    After i retire I might enjoy to move to Hawaii.

    November 27, 2013 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
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