Medical Moment: Brain-powered prosthetics

Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 5:37 PM EDT
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(WNDU) - More than two million Americans are living with limb loss.

Prosthetics are a solution to help with mobility and some function, but in most cases, the artificial limbs may be stuck in one position.

55-year-old Greg Phillips was on his way homme on Labor Day in 2013, when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle.

“It was called a compression fracture, in which the foot was crushed between an 850-pound motorcycle and the rear Axle of a car,” Phillips said.

After two years fighting infection and instability, Phillips and his doctors agreed to amputate.

“I decided to take the leg off because I would be healthier,” Phillips explained.

But traditional prosthetics also require the wearer to compensate with their hips or back.

“It doesn’t provide power, doesn’t provide enough range of motion,” said Helen Huan, a biomedical engineer at NC State University and UNC Chapel Hill.

In this lab at North Carolina State University, biomedical engineers are studying how these prosthetic ankles can restore more natural movement.

“The difference of our prosthesis is that we’re actually giving control to people by using the muscle signals that are still there, even after amputation,” said Aaron Fleming, one of the engineers in the program.

Fleming attaches sensors to track Phillips’ calf muscles. With the device on, Phillips is able to stand up from a chair without using his arms. He can walk with a fluid motion, and bend to pick up objects. While the powered ankle isn’t commercially available yet, Greg Phillips said he’d like to have one someday.

“I’m hoping so,” Phillips said. “I’m putting my money on Aaron.”

Finding the best prosthetics for an amputee’s lifestyle can be very challenging, especially for an ankle.

One new piece of technology is a product called Empower which is a prosthetic with an active ankle joint.

This device is battery powered and it propels the foot forward; it imitates life-like movement of lost muscles and tendons which is said to normalize gait and reduce stress on the joints and helps people wear prosthetics for longer distances and on uneven ground.