Robotics are typically portrayed as complex mechanical systems that function according to a fixed code. Yet, that is quickly changing; certain robotic parts are now able to update their code in real time. By incorporating engineering and neuroscience research, scientists and physicians have found a way to make robotic pieces function “naturally” like any limb on the human body.
Prostheses are robotic limbs that can restore the functions of a missing body part and, thus, can return autonomy and control to patients over their immediate environment. However, it can be difficult for patients to adjust to wearing prostheses, considering their visual and functional differences to the body. For example, prosthetic arms were traditionally made of iron and were, in essence, a pincer-like split hook that was used to grab and grip items. The hook was covered with a glove that looked like a human hand and worn on the arm. It was controlled in a variety of ways, including using another body part, such as the shoulder, to move the prosthetic arm; pressing switches or buttons with another body part to perform simple actions; or using electrical signals sent between the prosthetic implant and nearby muscles to perform actions. In general, these traditional methods primarily allowed for gross motor movements, such as picking up an item.
However, as prostheses advance both aesthetically and functionally, these shortcomings are slowly disappearing. Visually, prosthetic arms can now look almost indistinguishable from a person’s arm. This human-like appearance is made possible by computer-generated 3-D printing, which allows for personalized computer generated designs. People can choose to make prosthetic implants match their skin tones and add freckles or fingerprints to make them similar to intact counterpart limbs. Functionally, scientists have potentially found a solution to make prostheses more similar to other limbs on the body. Physicians and engineers at Johns Hopkins reported that they have found a way for patients to control a prosthetic arm with their brain. First, electrodes are surgically implanted over the part of the brain that normally controls hand and arm movements. Then, using the patient’s thought of wanting to move the prosthetic arm, the electrodes detect an electrical signal from the thought and translate it into the movement of the prosthetic arm. Researchers found that using the brain to control a prosthetic arm allowed gross motor movements and restored fine motor movements. In other words, this technology allows patients to move the prosthetic arm and individual fingers on the prosthetic arm with their thoughts.
The current state of science allows for the restoration of a missing limb in a way that is familiar, rather than foreign to the body. Advances in the engineering behind prostheses allow for “thinking” to control movements, which is far more “natural” than using buttons or visual cues to control and restore autonomy. Thus, through these recent advances, robotic parts can become a new and integrated part of the human body.