Controlling a Prosthesis by thought alone. Impossible? Not at all!

SDN likes to bring you up to date information on may areas of disability, & indeed just one example was in the March 2014 edition of “Your Voice” which included an article from Access On-line magazine. This particular article reported that a team of Swiss & Italian scientists had enabled Danish amputee Dennis Aabo Sørensen to test a wired prosthetic hand enabling him to sense touch. This had been the result of 5 hour operation when electrodes were grafted onto the ulna & median nerves in Dennis’s upper arm. The results were amazing as the outcome was better than expected when he experienced accurate touch in his finger tips but despite this as it was only an experiment Dennis soon had to revert back to his prosthetic limb. 

I was reading a Blesma magazine & discovered amazing things are happening closer to home as technology in the UK has now enabled Corporal Andy Garthwaite to be the first person in the UK to control his prosthesis by thought alone! In September 2010 Andy was wounded in Afghanistan by a rocket propelled grenade, robbing him completely of his right arm. As with anyone loosing a limb there is rehabilitation programme that takes place in the hope of getting back as much as possible of what has been taken from you. Initially he was given a traditional prosthetic arm, as any one would find, this is no substitute for what you have lost, plus having live with the many frustrations that someone in this situation must experience. 

Thanks to a process called Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) & a very clever surgeon from Austria called Professor Aszmann, during a 6 hour operation on Corporal Garthwaite redirected intact nerves into muscles on his chest wall. By placing electrodes on those muscles they become natural amplifiers which then work the prosthesis. Corporal Garthwaite lost his arm from the shoulder so that is why muscles on his chest wall were used. Now when he thinks about using his prosthetic arm it is the thoughts in his mind that triggers the chest muscles to that movement ie to lift, extend. Since Andy’s operation in December 2013, everyday tasks that many people just take as the granted ie turning pages in a book, stirring a cup of tea, making drinks, opening a bottle, unscrewing a jar have become easier for Him. So often people with prosthesis, due to many frustrations in lack of function don’t wear them but with TMR the limb is closer than ever to being like the one you have lost making life easier. 

Like Captain Nic Beighton who spoke at our SDN meeting last December, it takes a lot of rehab & determination by the person who has lost limb(s) to work hard, practice & more practice in order to achieve new goals. Of course for this patients also need the support of not only surgeons & nurses but specialist physiotherapists & occupational therapists. As we know, even with technology nothing will be exactly like the limb you have lost but it is good to see how modern technology is moving forward & hopefully continue to move forward. 

Andy received treatment at several places & like Nick had a lot of his treatment at Headley Court & both are thankful to the MOD & support Blesma as well as many others for the help & support given to them. SDN followed the team which included Nick Beighton-(double amputee & Paralympian London 2012) taking part earlier this year in Beeline Britain (First ever Land’s End to John O’Groats in a straight line)

and you can read (and support) more about this epic challenge by visiting 

Next time: How Targeted Muscle Reinnervation works.

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