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Robotic Arm Holds Promise For Paralyzed Soldiers

The Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs are involved in new research that demonstrates how an advanced prosthetic arm can be controlled by the human brain.

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Researchers have demonstrated that tetraplegics, people unable to use their limbs, can control a robotic arm via neuro signals conveyed by a microelectrode array implanted in the brain. The scientific advance holds promise for people who are paralyzed or otherwise seriously injured, including wounded soldiers.

The results of this latest research into robotic arm control were reported in the scientific journal Nature. Two study participants were able to control a prosthetic limb to reach and grasp. One used the arm to take a sip of coffee from a bottle with a straw.

The report's authors are affiliated with a half dozen medical research centers, including the Department of Veterans Affairs' Rehabilitation Research and Development Service. The research was partly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The VA and the Department of Defense are investing in the research and development of brain-controlled prosthetics because war-related amputations have reached the highest level in 10 years. Last year, 240 deployed troops lost an arm or leg, or multiple limbs, according Stars & Stripes, citing Pentagon data. Many of the injuries were the result of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

DARPA established its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006 with a goal of creating advanced mechanical arms and control systems and exploring the viability of using the brain to control the arms. Last October, DARPA reported that a volunteer who had been left paralyzed by a motorcycle accident had successfully done that.

According to DARPA, some of the capabilities developed under the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program have been applied to small robotic systems used for manipulating IEDs.

The DARPA program also led to the development of a robotic arm by DEKA, one of the contractors in the program. The internal control framework of the DEKA arm was used in the study described in the article in Nature. Last month, DEKA sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration to make its prosthetic arm commercially available.

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