Today's Thought: “A medicine cat has no time for doubt. Put your energy into today and stop worrying about the past.” -Erin Hunter, Rising Storm

Bionic prostheses: past, present and the future

Alen Parker

The inception of prostheses is not a recent phenomenon. Back in medieval Europe, prostheses existed. Studies have shown, only a few craftsmen could build them. The skill and training needed for building a prosthesis were extremely limited to a certain class of craftsmen.

The prosthesis itself was restricted to the rich and important of a society. The materials used in the built, were heavy and expensive. Back then it was very difficult to fetch those materials. On the ergonomics front, the prostheses seem to fail badly. As the medieval prostheses were heavy, clunky and extremely difficult to live with.

Compared to those days, today’s prostheses are more agile and pack a lot of ergonomic promise. The materials used in the building are lighter and the design is more sophisticated, concentrating towards ease of use and reliability. Before the emergence of bionics, even modern-day sleek prostheses were merely a cosmetic enhancement. But after bionics was incorporated into the design, the functional aspects shore higher than ever.

This article will try to explore the relationships and differences between the old, the new. And try to explore what’s emerging from the horizon.

Then and now

Today a prosthesis is designed to replace a lost limb. Though this feat is not yet achieved. But the effort and developments are evident. A prosthesis today is made up of materials featuring a high strength to weight ratio. These composite materials are also fairly expensive but are not impossible to get hands-on. As a result, they are lighter and stronger and never extracts a toll on their robustness. In a nutshell, it is easier to live with.

The old prosthesis never had many real functions, but the modern ones pack the promises of bionics. Today’s prostheses are controlled by a powerful micro-computer. And the instruments are operated with the help of electromyographic signals from the residual muscles, post-amputation. The EMG signals are picked up by non-invasive EMG sensors placed on the skin. The EMG sensors take up the EMG signals from the muscles and deliver them to the computer. The computer assesses the hardware capabilities and the transcription is thus executed.

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In addition to ergonomic composite materials, a modern prosthesis also keeps in mind the aspect of hygiene. Superhydrophobic materials with low friction are used to build the parts in contact with the skin. Silicone elastomers are very popular amongst this group of materials. This material reduces friction by removing any humidity that might bring harm. They are easy to clean and do not entertain infections and sweat deposition.

The challenges of today

Today’s prostheses utilize a non-invasive sensor paradigm. The EMG sensors used in the building are far out of reach from the deep embedded sensory nerve bundles. As a result, they don’t usually feature a good enough sensory promise. The lack of sensation is somewhat detrimental for the user as the limitation of a prosthesis remains unknown to the wielder and can only be gained by experience.

The solution

The solution to this problem is emerging from the distant horizon. The solution involves reaching the embedded sensory bundles, even if by invasive means. The neuromusculoskeletal sensor paradigm is the solution. An invasive paradigm involves a lot of compilations. As the sensors are to enter a human body and stay there for a fairly long period the materials should be of top-notch quality. The placement of sensors is a permanent affair; it can not be taken off by the wielder whenever required.

With massive progress in the field of biological sciences, 3D printed organs are not a farfetched idea anymore. Despite having neuromusculoskeletal sensor paradigms in place a noninvasive bionic hand prosthesis is always in preference due to the ease of use. And till 3d printed organs take over the market they are the best rehabilitation option we have.

Awareness

Thanks to local manufacturers, a third world country like ours is not regaining the lost mobility. Indian prostheses are bound to be efficient and a good value for money. And support from a local manufacturer is expected to be more engaging as well. Unfortunately, the low prices and good after-sales support can not popularise bionics in our country. Many amputees in need have no idea of the existence of bionic prostheses. The educated and learned of the society now must take up the responsibility of enlightening the ones in dark. And only then the ones who really care about regaining lost abilities can be helped. No matter what we achieve in terms of technology, it is useless until deployed for the greater good


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