Prosthetic Limb Restores Amputees’ Sense of Touch
Nov13

Prosthetic Limb Restores Amputees’ Sense of Touch

Thanks to ongoing neurological research at the Revolutionizing Prosthetics department at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), we are seeing incredible breakthroughs in the advancement of prosthetic limbs. The latest development enables amputees to not only control their robotic limbs with their minds, but to feel with them, too. Limbs Need to Communicate Prosthetic limbs have two jobs: to transmit information from a person’s brain to an object (e.g., “Grab the object from the table”), and to transmit information from an object to a person’s brain (e.g., “You now have the object in your hand”). Justin Sanchez, program manager at DARPA, says “Without feedback from signals traveling back to the brain, it can be difficult to achieve the level of control needed to perform precise movements.” Anatomy of DARPA’s New Robotic Limb Scientists have long been able to create limbs that can be controlled by a person’s brain; communicating data back up to the brain has been a bit more difficult. To enable both lanes of communication, Sanchez and his team placed electrodes on various parts of one patient’s brain; specifically, the parts responsible for recognizing sensations like pressure and for controlling body movement. They then connected those electrodes to the patient’s mechanical hand. The hand DARPA used, developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University, included state-of-the-art technology that sent electronic signals to the brain when the person touched an object with his prosthetic hand. As part of their study, the research team blindfolded the patient and touched individual fingers on his hand at random; the patient was able to identify which finger they were touching nearly 100% of the time. When researchers touched two fingers at once, he laughed and asked if they were playing a trick on him. At that point, it became clear how well the hand was actually working. Room for Growth: The Future of Prosthetic Technology DARPA’s technology, which essentially builds a network between a person’s brain, their prosthetic limb, and an object, opens up a number of doors for the future. DARPA is presently working on the paper that will document the details of their findings; after peer review and publication, other researches will be able to use it to modify the direction of their own studies. While the DARPA hand is a huge leap in upper-limb prosthetics, there still is room for improvement. Its movement is still more robotic and jumpy; there’s a lot of work to do before we can say we’ve truly recreated the versatility and maneuverability of the human hand. Some have asked about the possibility of adding temperature sensors and focused, nerve-to-nerve sensitivity. Aesthetics...

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The Invisibility Cloak Steps Into the Light
Oct09

The Invisibility Cloak Steps Into the Light

  We humans have long hailed ourselves as the most evolved, most intelligent, most all-around-awesome species ever to walk the earth. And, okay, to be fair, we are pretty darn impressive. Thumbs, speech, logic, and the ability to make fire and build skyscrapers—we’ve got a whole lot that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. However, there is one thing we have yet to master—one thing that tops the list of “things we wish we had”—invisibility. A number of other organisms have become virtuosos of invisibility, camouflaging their bodies to mimic other species and their surroundings. And we are so freakin’ jealous. Until now. Scientists at the US Department of Energy and UC Berkeley have developed technology for a super-thin material that can actually hide an object from visible light. The material has a long way to go before it can be considered a full-fledged invisibility cloak, but we’d like to officially notify the chameleons, octopi, and jellyfish of the world to enjoy the spotlight while you still can: We’re coming for you.     Invisibility as a “Mirror Effect” The scientists, working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, assembled their material by weaving microscopic nanoantennae into the ultrathin skin of an electromagnetic metasurface. This became an 80-nanometer-thick sheet that could be placed over an object; the first “object” they chose was a cluster of bumpy, mountainous cells. When placed over the cells, the magnetized sheet redirected all visible light waves, making the object appear smooth and flat (like a mirror) to the human eye. When the scientists reversed the polarity of the nanoantennae, the object became visible again. It’s easy to imagine this technology placed over a larger surface (a person, for example); the redirection of light waves would totally disguise the wearer, just as it did the cluster of cells. From Science Fiction to Science There has always been a connection between science fiction and actual science. The two often feed into and from each other. From flying machines to ultrasonic drones to 3D-printed hands, we’ve proven our ability to bring science fiction to the real world. Scientists are now close to pulling the abilities of The Invisible Man and Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak out of our imaginations and into reality. “I Solemnly Swear I Am Up to No Good”: Relevant Questions about Invisibility Considering this technological leap, we now face the ethical and utilitarian questions of invisibility: What should it be used for? Who should be allowed to use it? Should there be legal stipulations to using the material? How should (or could) invisibility be monitored? There are obvious militaristic applications (real-life Predator, anyone?),...

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3D Printed Hands Become an Affordable Solution for Amputees
Sep23

3D Printed Hands Become an Affordable Solution for Amputees

  In many fantasy and sci-fi narratives, there’s a point where reality is pushed aside and a fantastical future is introduced. Often, this turn happens when the only way to solve the problem at hand is to utilize some amazing, futuristic technology. The 3D printing of medical device prototypes is, in a lot of ways, similar—when we encounter a problem, we can now think up and print out a solution. The only difference between our Star Trek-y fantasies and the 3D printing of medical devices is, of course, that 3D printing solutions are are a reality. Affordable 3D-Printed Hands for Amputees Using computer graphics of existing hands, Open Bionics hopes to make affordable, 3D-printed hands available for purchase in the next decade or so. The company’s ambition comes in part from their comprehensive understanding of how brain signals activate body parts. By utilizing specific materials in their printing, the company is able to create customizable, 3D-printed hands. The hands are completely functional. Similar to regular body parts, robotic hands are controlled via electrodes connecting them to a person’s brain. When we reach out to, say, pick up a cup, our brains automatically send electrical signals that tell our wrists to rotate, our fingers to splay open, and our hands to wrap around the cup. Robotic technology can now artificially recreate that bridge. As reported by The Mary Sue, it is now even possible to connect the electrodes in robotic arms to allow their users to actually feel what they’re touching. There are nearly 2 million people in the United States living and adapting to life as amputees. Open Bionics is determined to improve their quality of life by streamlining the bionic 3D-hand-printing process to be effective, precise, and economically viable. 3D Printing for Everyone In the early stages of 3D printing, a printed body part could cost someone hundreds of thousands of dollars. As 3D prototype printing is integrated with a wider range of materials (like advanced polymers and living tissue), it will be more plausible to mass-produce 3D-printed hands of all sizes, shapes, and designs. A new printed hand could someday be as affordable as a pair of designer shoes. Overcoming the Socio-Tech Gap Obviously, 3D printing has our attention. However, it is still a relatively new endeavor, and the majority of the public doesn’t know too much about it. We also recognize the trust gap, too—even though the technology is surely improving, a lot of us have a hard time believing 3D printing is as capable as it promises to be. Open Bionics believes that they’ll be able to create these fully functional 3D-printed hands in about...

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New Graphene Research Looks to Kirigami for Inspiration
Aug10

New Graphene Research Looks to Kirigami for Inspiration

Kirigami, a form of origami, is an ancient Japanese art that involves cutting paper into complex and intricate designs. Anyone who has folded and snipped paper to create a snowflake design has dabbled in kirigami. Researchers at Cornell University recently experimented with kirigami as well, although they were definitely not creating snowflakes. Instead, they made some intriguing new discoveries with graphene research, which may soon change medicine and nanotechnology in far-reaching ways. Graphene is a recently discovered microscopic crystalline form of carbon. At a thickness of only one atom, graphene has superior electrical conductivity and flexibility. It has won the attention of researchers who are looking for ways to incorporate it into electronics, energy-saving lighting systems, medical technology, and more. Beyond Paper Snowflakes When researchers realized that a sheet of graphene behaved in a fashion very similar to a sheet of paper, able to crumple and bend but not stretch, they imagined ways that graphene could be manipulated into shapes. Based on a paper kirigami model, the scientists cut the graphene into hexagonal shapes to create hinges and springs on an atomic scale. Graphene, while extremely soft, is also very sticky, so researchers used a liquid similar to soapy water in order to make the micro-scale cuts and create it into the desired shapes. The hinge, even being only one atom thick, was opened and closed about 10,000 times before warping. Even at full extension, the spring did not lose its conductive properties. These findings have the potential to change the focus and progress of nanotechnology. From Nerve Sensors to Nanoscale Robotics For medical applications there is the potential that a single cell could be monitored with a graphene sensor. If physicians wanted to know if a single neuron in the brain or if a nerve ending on the skin was firing its signal correctly, a graphene sensor would be so tiny and so flexible that, theoretically, its excellent conductive properties would allow it to measure activity of that single cell. This would usher in a new era of personalized medical treatment. Technologically speaking, the ability to create flexible, nanoscale robots would no longer be the stuff of science fiction. Nanobots, powered by graphene circuits, could be ingested and used to diagnose ailments from an entirely new perspective. Flexible graphene sensors could be incorporated into materials that would serve as the muscle fibers of functioning cybernetic limbs or automatons. Cell phones and smart watches would become obsolete with the ability to install nanoscopic sensors directly into the skin. Further research is ongoing. The graphene kirigami will have to function outside of a liquid solution to be viable in medical...

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“Smart Insulin Patch” Could Bring Relief to Millions with Diabetes
Jul13

“Smart Insulin Patch” Could Bring Relief to Millions with Diabetes

A team of doctors and biomedical engineers at the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University have developed a precise and convenient patch that could preclude the need of many diabetics ever having to give themselves insulin injections again. Injections can be painful, and if administered improperly, can lead to adverse health effects for the patient. Individuals with type 1 and advanced type 2 diabetes are required to frequently monitor their blood glucose level with finger pricks and control it with diet and insulin shots. An incorrect dose of insulin can lead to blindness, amputations, coma or even death. A “smart insulin patch” has now been developed that could make injections obsolete for most diabetics once human testing has been completed. The patch is small, smaller than the size of a penny, and it has more than 100 microscopic needles covering its surface, each of which measures glucose levels and contains it’s own supply of insulin. The patches can be placed anywhere on the diabetic’s body. They release glucose fast, and they’re made from nontoxic materials. When glucose levels get too high, the appropriate amount of insulin is released into the user’s blood. Factors such as a patient’s weight and sensitivity to insulin are accounted for to make sure that each person gets a safe level of insulin from the patch. They’re engineered to imitate beta cells that naturally produce insulin in the human body and recreate the functions of pancreatic cells. When beta cells sense that there’s too much sugar in the body, they trigger the release of insulin. Using natural materials, the researchers were able to create artificial vesicles that function in the same way. Successful trials of the patch have been performed with mice. The team discovered that glucose levels in mice were satisfactory stabilized within 30 minutes and remained that way for several hours. Mice are known to be  less sensitive to insulin than humans so the hope is that the “smart insulin patch” will be even more effective in people with stable glucose levels lasting longer than in the mice trials. The ultimate goal is to develop a “smart insulin patch” that diabetics would only need to change after a few days. Researchers are planning on moving forward with additional pre-clinical tests and then on to human clinical trials.   If the patch performs as hoped, it could result in the eradication of hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia in diabetes patients. That possibility alone, could affect the lives of over 387 million diabetics across the...

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Carnegie Mellon Students Invent New Way to Teach Braille
Apr16

Carnegie Mellon Students Invent New Way to Teach Braille

Computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have designed an innovative device to teach Braille to blind students without using Braille Paper or a slate and stylus. The Braille Tutor for blind children, which was developed as part of the CMU TechBridgeWorld program, has already been used to teach Braille to impoverished blind children in India, Tanzania, and Zambia. According to Dr. Bernardine Dias of the CMU computer sciences department, the Braille Tutor project began to take form in 2006. Dr. Dias and her project team first realized that the little black box had potential after successfully using the device to teach Braille to students at Mathru, a school for the blind in Bangalore, India. Even children who lacked the ability to conceptualize Braille could learn with the assistance of the Braille Tutor. According to Ermin Teeves, project manager of TechBridgeWorld, CMU’s computerized Braille Tutor eliminates the cost of Braille paper and the frustration of embossing raised dots with a slate and stylus. Students have even developed a model that requires only a set of speakers to listen to the audio cues and instructions that help students learn the alphabet in Braille. Dr. Dias founded TechBridgeWorld to provide an avenue for Carnegie Mellon computer science students to create simple technology with the goal of assisting impoverished communities throughout the world. The Braille Tutor was one of the first projects to emerge from the TechBridgeWorld program. Although the project was initiated by CMU graduate students more than a decade ago, a series of ambitious students and computer science staff have kept development alive. TechBridgeWorld plans to continue development of the device. The students are already working on a version that can be connected to a Smartphone. Newer versions of the Braille Tutor eliminate the need for an external computer and allow students to use a stylus, consult an audio tutor, or both. Dr. Dias and the project team hope to strengthen their partnership with schools for the blind in impoverished areas of the...

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