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Bionics help amputees regain independence

February 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
There are 1.2 million amputees living in the United States. As many as 200,000 rely on a prosthetic, but many complain about poorly fitting limbs that can be painful and uncomfortable. But now, three new breakthroughs are helping people regain their independence one step at a time.Nineteen-year-old Jordan Wells and Ashley Younger were on their way to meet friends on September 27, 2008, when Wells lost control of her car.

"It hydroplaned, went across the median, hit a tree and then went into oncoming traffic," said Wells.

Rescuers cut them out of the car and loaded them into a medEvac helicopter for a 25-mile flight to the nearest ER. But as they were on their way to get care, something went terribly wrong. Dense fog and rain made it difficult to land and the heicopter lost control and crashed.

"I was thrown before it hit the ground. It just kind of all crashed together, and pieces of it and part of the helicopter crashed on my legs, and then the big tree fell on top of that," said Wells.

She woke up in the woods, cold, in pain and alone. Two hours later, rescuers found the wreckage. Five people were on board the chopper, including Younger. Wells was the only survivor.

"They had my body on this broken board. My legs were straight, but both my feet were hanging off the side of the board by skin and tendons," said Wells.

Wells had to undergo 24 surgeries to treat a broken cheekbone, nose, eye socket, shoulder blade and five dislodged spinal discs. She also lost one of her legs, but after three months in the hospital and a year of therapy, Wells walks using a new bionic leg.

"For the first time, we actually have a device that's interactive with the patient. It's actually changing as the patient changes," said Phil Hewett, a prosthetist at Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, Inc.

Traditional prosthetic legs are static as the patient moves. Wells' leg senses how fast she's moving, and then loosens or tightens to make each stride more comfortable.

"It now can sense, much like the Wii game does, it has those advanced sensors on board so it knows if the patient's walking, running or jumping," said Hewett.

Bluetooth technology sends information from the leg to a PalmPilot. That helps the doctor design a personalized fit for each person.

"Patients tell us that it feels like it's connected, it's a part of them and it's interacting as they interact. It's truly what the future is," said Hewett.

Losing a limb no longer means losing your independence.

"There's nothing you can do about the past, so live in today. These are the cards you've been dealt, so pick them up and play them," said Wells.

Neuroscientists say one day, artificial limbs will be controlled using the mind. Researchers have already tested that theory by putting an electronic implant in a monkey's brain. The implant allowed the monkey to control a robotic arm as if it was their own.

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Wells' new leg, the V-Hold, was developed by Hanger Orthopedic Group. It's unique "smart" socket adjusts as the wearer walks, jogs, speeds up, slows down, stands up or sits down. It's also designed to adjust to different terrains. Sensors and a vacuum suction improve fit and comfort.

One factor that may be speeding up the development of such technology is the fact that U.S. troops injured in Iraq have needed limb amputations at twice the rate of past wars. But many others could benefit from devices like the V-hold. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there are 50,000 new amputations every year in the U.S.


Another revolutionary prosthetic is the i-LIMB bionic hand. Each finger in the advanced hand has an individual motor, giving amputees the motor control it takes to execute everyday tasks, like writing and holding small objects. Electrodes are placed on the surface of the remaining portion of the person's limb, reading myoelectric, or muscle signals, from within to control the hand.


Soon prosthetics will be controlled using the mind. Neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, have already successfully demonstrated that a pair of monkeys with electrodes in their brains are able to control a robotic arm as if it were their own. Scientists in the United Kingdom are also working to link prosthetic limbs with a person's actual skeleton. Currently, prosthetics are connected externally to a person's stump, but the Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAP) involves connecting a titanium rod directly into the bone. Experts say the risk of infection is avoided because skin tissue grows around the rod to form a seal.