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New Mind-Controlled Bionic Limb to Debut With a 103-Story Stair-Climb

Posted November 04, 2012 1:12 PM

From ExtremeTech:

Zac Vawter thinks big. A software engineer and former competitive long-distance runner, Vawter's blog is a list of his not-so-modest aspirations, things like winning a marathon or writing a new large-scale search engine. After the motorcycle accident that took his right leg, Vawter kept running and quickly volunteered as a test subject for experimental new therapies. Now the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is using that tenacity to help debut its new, thought-controlled prosthetic leg in a grueling 103-floor stair-climb of Chicago's Willis Tower. And Vawter is determined to do it in under an hour.

Unlike many other thought-controlled prosthetics, Vawter's experimental leg requires no electrodes be implanted in or on the brain, and instead takes its cues entirely from the nerves and muscles in Vawter's upper leg. Researchers used a procedure called "targeted muscle reinnervation" to re-wire nerves previously bound for below the knee to the remaining hamstring muscle. Years of careful study then allowed them to read and interpret the signals meant for Vawter's lost lower leg.

Lead researcher Levi Hargrove told the Chicago Tribune that Vawter "thinks about doing those movements and the signals travel down the nerves and are redirected onto hamstring muscle. The body doesn't know that the ankle is not contracting." Vawter himself calls previous leg replacements his "dumb" legs, since they are incapable of responding to his unconscious impulses. The 31-year-old will have to return the leg after the climb, however, and get by on the simple limbs until the technology is approved for commercial sale.

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