The Pentagon's advanced research group, DARPA, has achieved some big breakthroughs that may help restore a sense of touch to military personnel who have lost limbs in service of their countries.
The Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program from DARPA is aiming for direct, reliable connections between prosthetic limbs and the brain, spinal cord, and neurons in replacement limbs.
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is part of the RE-NET team, has developed and demonstrated one living peripheral-nerve interface, Fox News reported.
Called micro-targeted muscle re-innervation or TMR, this type of interface forms a long-term connection that lets the wounded warrior communicate, direct and control movement of the artificial limb.
The Institute's surgical procedure reassigns to the pectoral muscles the nerves that once controlled the arm and hand. The new interface then allows existing muscles to control the prosthetic.
After the surgery, the patient returns home and waits five to six months for the nerves to regrow. An arm is then custom-built to correspond to the newly re-innervated muscles.
This radically innovative procedure is now available to the public.
Another nerve interface technology showing promise in the RE-NET program is FINE (flat-interface nerve electrodes).
While TMR improves control, FINE focuses on restoring the sense of touch.
FINE interfaces with residual nerves in the patient's partial limb; in the system, electrodes are placed around individual peripheral nerves and used to record motor-control information.
In 2012, DARPA invested 24 million dollars into this promising technology. This year the agency will spend a further 10.2 dollars for human testing and FDA applications, and to develop a 28 degree-of-freedom avatar.