The following article about bionic limb research at SMU is from the February 24, 2011, edition of Popular Science magazine.
March 1, 2011
By Morgen Peck
The Six Million Dollar Man’s robotic arm worked as seamlessly as his natural one. But in the real world, robotic limbs have limited motions and the user can’t feel what he or she is “touching.” a new approach using optical fibers implanted around nerves could transmit more data and let prosthetics speak to the brain.
Previously, scientists surgically connected electrodes to the nervous system, but they seemed to harm the body’s tissues, making the implant fail within months. In 2005, scientists discovered that they could stimulate a neuron to send a message by shining infrared light on it. Last September, DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D branch, awarded $4 million to a project led by Southern Methodist University engineers to attempt to connect nerves to artificial limbs using fiber optics.
The team suspects that flexible glass or polymer fiber optics will be more flesh-friendly than rigid electrodes. In addition, optical fibers transmit several signals at once, carrying 10 times as much data as their electrical counterparts. “Our goal is to do for neural interfaces what fiber optics did for the telecom industry,” says electrical engineer Marc Christensen, who is leading the SMU group. Transmitting more information faster should give bionic limbs more lifelike movements.
This month, the team will implant optical fibers to stimulate a rat’s rear leg. If it works, Christensen says, in about a decade, robotic arms could be as graceful as Steve Austin’s six-million-dollar one.
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