The recent Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi have shown disabled people at their best, with them competing against others from around the world and representing their countries with pride. This is only one example of how people with a disability can adapt to perform in such activities, with this in some cases being down to prosthetics. Equipment such as artificial arms and legs have helped amputees to carry on with their everyday lives and achieve things that they thought would now be more challenging to reach.
Sport is just one example of how people have adapted equipment to suit their needs, and with newer technologies being developed in prosthetics, amputees and other people born with such disabilities will soon be able to use their arms or legs as if they were still there. Advanced prosthetics have also allowed musicians to play their instruments again, enabled amputees to go back to work in their original jobs and most importantly allowed veterans the ability to get involved with everyday life.
Prosthetics have changed drastically since they were first used two millennia ago. As humans we have the innate ability to use our initiative, and such limbs could always be replaced. The first artificial limbs were made out of wood and were mostly too heavy to carry out everyday tasks with. They were made to look like the arms and legs that they were replacing, and although legs were able to help the person to walk again, arms were less manageable. The joints were made using hinges screwed into the wood, leaving them stiff and relatively unmanageable.
Since then limbs have been developed out of metal alloys and more recently new mechanical limbs have been created. These allow the amputee to use their fingers to hold things and their toes to help with stability. This has been done either by a control with toggles and buttons, or using information passed down from the brain to where the limb was removed. This information in some cases can be transferred to the artificial limb using electrodes to detect the pulse sent towards the particular muscle. These are being developed increasingly and more people are opting for these prosthetics instead of the bulkier wooden or metal ones.
Recently, the first bionic arm and hand that has the capability of allowing the host to feel and touch has been developed. To do this, the electronics of the bionic arm and hand were connected to the nervous system. Tiny electrodes that are connected to the different parts of the prosthetic, such as each of the fingers and the palm of your hand, are connected to the nerves within the arm. When we touch an object, our nerves send electronic pulses that travel through our body until they reach the brain. This is where we establish that we are indeed touching something and what texture the object has, helping us to distinguish between different surfaces. The electrodes are sending these electrical signals through the medium of very tiny wires and they are attached much like our nerves would be reattached after an operation.
These advances allow amputees to be able to walk or run again, to pick something up with a hand that is absent and also enjoy activities which they used to do before such as playing a sport or an instrument. In other words, to live life like they choose. There will though always be room to develop the existing technology and with the ergonomics and aesthetics of prosthetic limbs progressing at such a rate, soon we may not be able to tell the artificial from the real thing.
How close are we to having a fully lifelike prosthetic limb?