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From Disability to Superpower

Written by: Written by: Jo Jackson

27 February 2019

Cutting-Edge Prosthetics

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From Disability to Superpower

Do you believe in ghosts? Whether or not you do, there is one kind of irrefutable haunting that has been carefully studied by science. It was “first described in 1552 by French surgeon Ambroise Paré who operated on wounded soldiers”.

What he noticed was that, despite having lost a limb, the soldiers seemed haunted by it, complaining of pain in the part of their body that was no longer there. 

Erna Otten offered up a personal story of just such a haunting to The New York Review:

As a very young student of the Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein—an artist who had lost his right arm in World War I—I had many occasions to see how involved his right stump was whenever we went over the fingering for a new composition.

He told me many times that I should trust his choice of fingering because he felt every finger of his right hand. At times I had to sit very quietly while he would close his eyes and his stump would move constantly in an agitated manner. This was many years after the loss of his arm and between 1933 to 1939.

Erna Otten

PS. His finger choice was always the best! 

As physician, professor, neurologist, and author, Oliver Sacks, points out, “memories and images of the body (...) may persist for decades when limbs are amputated. Such images (“phantom limbs”) may be intrusive, or painful—but they may also be of great service to the amputee.” Sacks goes on to explain that phantom limbs are not simply “psychic hallucinations conjured up by bereavement, mourning, or yearning”, but are the result of “the remaining, proximal portions of the sensory and motor nerves to the limb.”

In Paul Wittgenstein’s case, his phantom fingers allowed him to continue engaging with music, however for many, the haunting memory of a lost limb can manifest in excruciating pain. This poem, for example, is a raw and vivid telling of the potential torture of a lost limb. What’s worse is that, until recently, very little was available to amputees in the way of prosthetic limbs, which are “artificial devices that replace a missing body part, which may be lost through trauma, disease, or congenital conditions”, and are used with the intention of restoring the normal functions of the missing body part.

Prosthetics date back as far as ancient India and Egypt. Signs of them have been uncovered in ancient Vedic Sanskrit hymns and on the bodies of mummies. Since then, prosthetics have been subject to many changes and advancements. In 1529, the same Ambroise Paré introduced amputation as a lifesaving measure in medicine and developed prosthetic limbs in a more studied and scientific manner. The very first kinematic prosthetics were developed in 1898, by Italian doctor Giuliano Vanghetti, who, “anxious to learn of the double mutilation (right hand and left foot) inflicted on a thousand àscari taken prisoner by Abissini,” created an artificial limb that could move through muscle contraction. Vanghetti’s idea to connect “precisely to those muscles and tendons that had been severed from the amputation,” was arguably the starting point of today’s innovations in prosthetics. 

The most complex and remarkable example of today’s advancements are myoelectric prosthetics. The “externally powered prosthesis (...) uses electromyography (EMG) signals from voluntarily contracted muscles in the residual limb for movement. Electrode sensors are embedded in the prosthetic’s socket to make contact with the surface of the skin,” thereby tapping into the power and potential of the phantom limb. 

Alongside these advances in myoelectric prosthetics, 3D printing has taken off, which means that all the mechanical components of a prosthesis can be 3D printed, making it 30 times cheaper than traditional forms of prosthetics. “It also allows for tailor-made designs to be implemented that perfectly match the wearer's wants and needs.”  

It only costs about R35 000 to make The Hero Arm, whereas other models similar to it in America cost around R1.2 million to make.

Having already made such incredible leaps forward, the question is, where to from here? While myoelectric prosthetics might restore the mind-movement connection, what about restoring the sense of touch? CEO and co-founder of PSYONIC, Aadeel Aktar, recently created a new control algorithm that could soon help amputees experience realistic touch sensations. Through biointegration and bioaugmentation “PSYONIC's mission is to redefine what it means to be human.” The future has never been nearer, and perhaps, as the creators of The Hero Arm say - in the future, disabilities will be superpowers!