It’s common knowledge that fiber-optic cables are responsible for giving us high-speed internet access. But what you might not know is that they’re now giving prosthetic limbs the ability to communicate with the brain – just like living tissue.
As Wired points out, the idea of using lasers to deliver messages to the nervous system actually surfaced in 2005 “when researchers at Vanderbilt realized they could trigger a nerve using infrared light.”
Then, in 2010, DARPA invested $5.6 million to take this research to the next level. It created the Neurophotonics Research Center, which was established to aid amputee veterans.
The scientists’ goal was to use the light from fiber-optic cables to improve motor control of prosthetic limbs. And it looks like they’ve done just that. Here’s how…
Prosthetics That Function Like Healthy Limbs
Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Professor Volkan Otugen gets the hat tip for cracking the code.
You see, he discovered the key to optimizing the communication between fiber optics and the body’s nerve endings: a micro-sensor.
Basically, a fiber-optic cable network is implanted in a prosthetic limb and coated with hundreds of micro-sensors. The sensors then transmit signals to healthy nerves, which relay messages to the brain.
Theoretically, this will allow an amputee to feel whatever he touches, as if healthy nerves were still picking up signals from his missing limb.
Best of all, the technology works both ways. Not only can a prosthetic send signals to the brain, but the brain can control the prosthetic’s movements, too.
Without a doubt, this breakthrough catapults past current prosthetic technology by miles.
As SMU says, “Currently available prosthetic devices commonly rely on cables to connect them to other parts of the body for operation. For example, requiring a hand amputee to clench a healthy muscle in the chest to manipulate a prosthetic hand. The movement is typically deliberate, cumbersome and far from lifelike.”
Plus, the micro-sensor being used is made from a jelly-like material that resembles living tissue. So the body is less likely to reject it than standard prosthetics.
Scientists plan to test a fiber optic-enhanced leg on a lab rat soon. If that proves successful, we’re looking at about a decade before the technology goes mainstream.
Not bad. Especially considering it has enormous potential beyond prosthetic limbs…
Eliminate Pain With a Single Thought
Since the technology allows the brain to control foreign objects, SMU researchers think it could also be modified to control chronic pain management.
In addition, the fiber-optic cables can form a bridge between severed nerve endings, so the technology could eventually repair spinal cord injuries.
As the Center’s Director, Marc Christensen, says, “This technology has the potential to patch the spinal cord above and below a spinal injury.”
Imagine making pain vanish just by thinking it. Or giving paralyzed people the ability to walk again. It’s fascinating science, for sure. And well worth a 10-year wait.
My advice for SMU researchers, though: Give Stanford a call and ask to borrow its amazing skin replacement technology for these new prosthetics. Perhaps that can speed things up a bit.