While printing full body replacements might be a way off, scientists are quickly figuring out how to manufacture prosthetics that work just like real body parts.
Sure, some prosthetics can already provide basic motor function by hooking them up to other parts of the body. But this method doesn’t produce a lifelike response and the functionality is limited.
To develop fully functional prosthetics, though, scientists realize that they need to create a direct line between the limb and the body’s nervous system.
Researchers at Southern Methodist University (SMU), for example, have used micro-sensors to help fuse prosthetics to a patient’s healthy nerves. Essentially, the sensors transmit signals to the nerves that relay a message to the brain. This allows an amputee to feel whatever he or she touches. The technology also allows the brain to send signals to the mechanical limb.
Now researchers have taken this to a whole new level, by developing a material that can actually promote new nerve growth within the prosthetic itself.
The Missing Link in Prosthetics
According to Dr. Shawn Dirk of Sandia National Laboratories, the biggest link toward developing a prosthetic that completely connects to the nervous system is creating a new way for the limb to attach to the body.
As he told Wired:
“We think the interface problem is key to enabling the neuro-prosthetic concept. And solving that is how we’re going to give amputees their bodies back.”
And by working with other scientists from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of New Mexico, that’s exactly what he’s discovered.
Put simply, they developed a new material that can act as an advanced connection between the body and the prosthetic limb. Whereas SMU’s technology described above uses microprocessors to communicate with healthy nerves, Dirk and the rest of the team found a way to make the nerves fuse with the prosthetic itself.
You see, the material acts as a scaffold that not only promotes new tissue growth, but is also porous enough to allow nerves to grow through the substance, creating a live connection to the artificial limb. As Dr. Shawn Dirk told Wired:
“Nerves need to grow and move around; they’re not going to integrate well with a stiff interface.”
The scientists made sure the scaffold’s material resembles actual nerves, too. This helps ensures that the body doesn’t reject it. And they’ve also used electrodes and carbon nanotubes to help deliver messages from the nerves to the prosthetic.
Of course, the question is, how well does it work? Great, at least on rats…
The scientists tested the scaffolding on rats and after testing concluded that nerve growth from an injured leg and into the material itself was indeed successful.
And luckily, the special substance was able to keep negative reactions to a minimum. According to Dirk:
“There was a very limited inflammatory response… That’s important, because we’re looking for an interface that won’t be rejected by the body. We want something that can last years, decades, and hopefully entire lifetimes.”
If Dirk and his colleagues demonstrate the technology’s ability to work with humans, too, it’s easy to see how the potential for this discovery would be massive.
For instance, it stands to reason that the substance could eventually be used to design entire prosthetic limbs.
The material could simply be used as “ink” for a 3-D printer. And doctors could just input the dimensions for a new hand, hit print, attach it to a patient and watch the nerves connect all the way to the fingertips.
All that’s remaining is for Dirk to collaborate with Stanford and its amazing skin replacement technology, and we’d really be in business.