Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Giving Sense of Movement To Bionics

Jon SensingerOne of the most promising and dynamic areas of current manufacturing in America is the medical field, where experts estimate the industry is on course to generate over $150 billion in worth by the end of this year. Much of the success of the recent upsurge in the American medical industry is due to technological breakthroughs in surgical appliances and devices. Demand for the next generation of medical equipment is driving investments such as IntriCon's latest 30,000 acre expansion of its existing Arden Hills facilities. Specifically, bionics show much potential, and the field is exploding with over $36 million in worth. Biotech enhancements and replacements span multiple patient needs, from the maimed veteran to the elderly person who just wants to walk to the corner store without knee pain.

At the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, specialists bring many of the most cutting-edge designs of current bionic research out of the lab and into patient use. While there always exists barriers in upgrading the mechanics of current biotechnology, some of the most important work being done seeks to unlock mysteries surrounding the human body. Together with fellow colleagues in Canada, researchers at Cleveland Clinic may have solved one of the most elusive problems in advancing bionic prosthetics for patients. 

Led by Paul Marasco, researchers at the Laboratory for Bionic Integration, a part of Cleveland Cinic's Lerner Research Institute, worked with a team led by John Sensinger of University of New Brunswick's Institute of Biomedical Engineering (as well as supporting experts in Alberta and Virgina), to crack the code of restoring kinesthesia- the innate sense of movement- to patients relying on bionic limbs. Although bionic limbs have made vast improvements in maneuverability and ease of use, they have always been limited to one sense: sight. In order to fulfill mundane tasks like picking up objects, patients must be able to see their prosthetic limbs in action so that they are accurately used.

Image result for cleveland clinic bionics breakthrough kinesthesia
Cleveland Clinic illustrates the idea behind granting greater kinesthesia
to patients with prosthetics. 
The process is fascinating and a lesson in utilizing the body to accept prosthetic enhancements using innovative thinking.  With the knowledge that the brain can sense movement in a set of muscles through tiny vibrations, the team used tiny robots to create micro-vibrations within the afflicted muscles (or sometimes even just a rerouted nerve activating that muscle). The result was an illusion of sensation for the patients, whereby they could stay aware of how their bionic limb was moving through space without needing to look at it.

Implications of this innovation are huge. "By restoring the intuitive feeling of limb movement — the sensation of opening and closing your hand — we are able to blur the lines between what the patients’ brains perceived as self versus machine,” says Marasco. This feat may allow similar breakthroughs that will further integrate machinery into a human being's biological system. Prosthetic limbs, as well as exoskeletons such as the Ekso which, since its 2012 introduction to the market, has been making strides in improvement, will more and more be greeted by a user's mind and body as one and the same.   

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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