Designing Life: Bionic Breakthroughs

Nearly 2 million Americans are living without limbs. But it’s the age of the bionic breakthrough, and now man is meshing with machine and allowing people with no legs or arms the power to do anything they want.

A hike on a sunny beautiful day on Mount Washington turned into a battle against Mother Nature for a world-class rock-climber's life.

“What was supposed to be a single day turned into four days," Hugh Herr, Ph.D., an associate professor and engineer at MIT, told Ivanhoe.

The wind howled at 94 miles an hour and it got worse.

“We were stuck by a blizzard,” Herr said.

By the time it was over, frost bite had settled in. Doctors amputated both of Hugh Herr's legs from below the knee.

“Today when I stand, I stand on synthetic structures, titanium, silicone, carbon, completely supported by artificial means,” Herr said.

Herr turned his tragedy into a mission and has become the bionic man who builds bionic people.

“It’s fantastic to test my own technology,” Herr said.

He is pushing the limits at MIT, taking his science intensely personally.

“I am not accepting of current technology. I’m always out there pushing the envelope,” Herr said.

His company -- iWalk -- is releasing the world's first robotic ankle-foot prosthesis. It has an electric motor and five internal microprocessors. Retired army staff sergeant Justin Lynn is one of the first to try it out. He lost his leg when his truck was struck by an IED in Iraq.

“As soon as they supplied power, I was amazed,” Justin Lynn said. “ It felt natural, like I had my foot and ankle again.”

“We’ve shown for the first time in history that we can normalize walking on level surfaces, how much energy and how fast they walk,” Herr said.

The powerfoot does not connect to nerves, but the military is working to close that gap. The military is implanting microchips on the surface of patients’ brains to study a prosthetic robotic arm controlled by the user’s thoughts. The 100 million dollar arm can rotate, twist and bend in 27 different ways -- the same 27 ways a human arm can move. Each finger is controlled separately.

“I grew up on star wars, and it almost looks like that hand that Luke Skywalker had,” Alexander Dromerick, M.D., a neuroscientist at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, DC, said.

Neuroscientists at the National Rehab Hospital are already using another robotic arm called the iLimb. Electrodes are attached to the end of a limb and pick up signals from the patients muscles. Those signals are sent to a computer inside the hand, which directs each finger to move.

“Picking up a piece of paper, turning over a checker, picking up small objects, those kind of fine motor things, that’s what it’s allowing people to do,” Dr. Dromerick said.

It’s giving Cheryl Douglass a freedom she thought she had lost when all four limbs came under attack by a rare infection.

“You can go home, lie in bed and feel sorry for yourself. The other option is to just get up and do things, which is what I opted to do,” Cheryl Douglass, a quadruple amputee, said.

Her new hand gives Cheryl the control to get back doing the things she loves.

"I’m pretty pleased because that means before long, I’ll be back cooking more French dishes,” Cheryl said.

They are a just few of the first people who are benefiting from the bionic age.

“I have two artificial limbs,” Herr said. “When I walk past a person, even if that person is a world expert on walking, they won’t be able to tell that I’m on two robots. That’s fun.”

These are the first steps to meshing man and machine into one. The military’s bionic arm will be the first device to be fast tracked for review by the FDA under its newly-proposed "Innovation Pathway" initiative. It’s designed to spur innovation by speeding the review of the most revolutionary new medical devices.

Designing Life: Bionic Breakthroughs -- Research Summary

BACKGROUND: In the United States, there are about 1.7 million people living with limb loss. About one out of every 200 people in this country has had an amputation. Most new amputations occur because of complications of the vascular system, especially from diabetes. These types of amputations are known as dysvascular. Rates of dysvascular amputations are rising. However, rates of cancer and trauma-related amputations are decreasing.

iWALK: The PowerFoot BiOM, made by iWalk, is the first bionic lower-leg system to replace lost muscle function and allow patients to walk without stressing the rest of the body. It relies on precision robotic engineering that actually powers the patient from one step to the next. The idea is the patient can walk with as little effort as possible. The BiOM is a bionic lower-leg system with reflexive powered plantar flexion that simulates the action of the ankle, Achilles tendon and calf muscles by propelling the amputee upwards and forwards during each step. The reflexive action in the BiOM performs net work on every step and returns 100 percent of the energy of a biological limb while accommodating for real time terrain changes. (SOURCE:

i-LIMB: The i-LIMB is the world's first fully articulating and commercially available bionic hand. The artificial limb looks and acts like a real human hand. The i-LIMB is controlled by a unique system that uses traditional two-input muscle signaling to open and close the hand's life-like fingers. This signal is picked up by electrodes that sit on the surface of the skin. Each individually powered finger can be quickly removed simply by removing one screw. It was developed using mechanical engineering techniques and is manufactured using high-strength plastics. The device is lightweight but robust. The i-LIMB is a commercially available device being used in the United States and Europe. Scientists at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington DC and elsewhere are currently studying and testing the device. (SOURCE: MORE

For More Information, Please Contact:

Rahsaan Holley The NRH Amputee Research Program National Rehabilitation Hospital Washington, DC (202) 877-1000

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