Les Baugh has robot arms he controls with his mind.
In a historic research project at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory over the summer, Baugh became the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and control two robotic arms simultaneously.
Baugh, who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, was able to operate the system by thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks during a short training period.
To prepare him for his new arms, Baugh had to go through a special surgery to "reassign nerves" that once controlled his arms and hands.
"By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform," said Johns Hopkins Trauma Surgeon Albert Chi, M.D. in a prepared statement.
Once recovered from the surgery, Baugh had to go through extensive training on the use of the modular prosthetic limbs.
"We use pattern recognition algorithms to identify individual muscles that are contracting, how well they communicate with each other, and their amplitude and frequency," Chi said. "We take that information and translate that into actual movements within a prosthetic."
Finally, Baugh was fitted for a custom plastic sheath that he wears over his shoulders and torso which both holds the prosthetic limbs and helps make the neurological connections with the reinnervated nerves.
To use the arms and hands, Baugh has to walk them through a series of controls with his mind. First he moves and places the arm, then he moves the wrist and finally, the hand. He has to take a break between each set of movements.
In his first real-world test-run, Baugh was able to move an empty cup from a counter-shelf height to a higher shelf, a task that required him to coordinate the control of eight separate motions to complete.
"This task simulated activities that may commonly be faced in a day-to-day environment at home," said APL's Courtney Moran, a prosthetist working with Baugh. "This was significant because this is not possible with currently available prostheses. He was able to do this with only 10 days of training, which demonstrates the intuitive nature of the control."
RP Principal Investigator Michael McLoughlin likened the work with Baugh to the early days of the internet.
"I think we are just getting started," he said. "There is just a tremendous amount of potential ahead of us, and we've just started down this road. And I think the next five to 10 years are going to bring phenomenal advancement."
The next step, McLoughlin said, is to send Baugh home with a pair of limb systems so that he can see how they integrate with his everyday life.
To repeat, someone is using their mind to control a shiny pair of new robot arms.
If you find this interesting, you should check out how video games are being used to treat phantom limb syndrome.