Medical Watch

Man’s new prosthetic arms controlled by his mind

He says he’s thankful he survived. And now on this Thanksgiving, Jim Young is particularly thankful for a new gift.

“I worked as a lineman for the electrical company. We had a job changing out some equipment, and evidently I was electrocuted 13,800v,” said Jim Young. “Three weeks later I woke up with a right stump and the arm gone to the shoulder of the left side. Thankfully I lived.”

Following his accident in September 2010, Jim Young’s goal was simple – to regain as much function as possible.

“You feel like you’ve lost all your independence. You feel like you’re not that helpful,” he said.

His search for help led him from his home outside of Boston to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where a team of researchers has been developing the world’s first thought-controlled arms. But it’s not the prostheses that are special – it’s a small black box that attaches to them.

“What’s exciting about this technology is the inclusion of more intuitive control,” said Walter Afable, RIC certified prosthetis.

Meaning, if Jim thinks about moving his hand, it moves. It’s not a novel idea — other technologies have made the connection, but they lacked control.

“You were always able to tell what you wanted the prosthesis to do. We crossed that gap, but we did so in a rudimentary and clumsy way,” Afable said.

RIC’s pattern recognition technology uses more electrodes and is more sensitive — it can pick up a broader range of muscle activity.

“The difference is, prior to this technology being available, we were looking at discreet, small areas of muscle signals. Now, we’re actually looking at what you could refer to as a heat map of electrical activity across the limb, and the pattern recognition controller is decoding that information into the simple thoughts Jim has like ‘moving my elbow, opening my hand, turning my wrist.’”

The controller looks like a USB flash drive. Jim has two — one on each shoulder wired to his motorized arms.

“If you think of what the core of this technology is, pattern recognition, it’s what you would find in facial recognition, voice recognition. We just happen to be applying it to recognize the signals that an amputee patient’s muscles are making,” said Blair Lock, RIC Bionic Researcher and CoApt Partner.

Jim has spent more than two years working with the RIC team to perfect the technology. Last week, the finished product was finally ready to go back to Boston with him.

“I barely have to move any muscle,” Young said. “Activities of daily living are what I’m after. These don’t replace real arms, but they go a long way into improving my life better than it’s been since my accident.”

“No longer is this just a research project. No longer is this a pipe dream. This is a commercial reality, and patients out there from all over the world can come here to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and start the process of getting their own sets of arms,” Afable said.

The RIC team is hoping they’ll be able to retrofit other prostheses to their pattern recognition controller — so amputees won’t have to replace their current artificial limbs. The device has been in the works for six years – developed right here in Chicago through RIC’s partnership with CoApt — a company made up of biomedical engineers.

Call 312.238.1000 for an evaluation or email #1bionics@ric.org

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