Developing the ideal prosthetic arm

Ben Johnson and Aparna Alluri Mar 3, 2015

Miles O’Brien, a science correspondent for PBS Newshour, had his arm amputated after he suffered an injury while he was on assignment last year.  

“It was quite a fluke,” said O’Brien. “I had been on a reporting trip and a case fell on my arm. A bruise turned into something potentially life threatening.”

By the time he got to a doctor it was too late to save his arm. He now uses a prosthesis. But not all the time.

“There’s one that I use for bicycling, one that I use when I am driving,” said O’Brien. As for the day to day, he added, he’s learn to live with one arm.

That’s largely because the current technology hasn’t produced the ideal replacement yet.

“When you think about what your hand does for you, that’s a huge engineering challenge,” said O’Brien. “The challenge of replacing the human arm, and in particular the human hand, is  tremendous.

But he’s optimistic because there’s been a lot of progress in related technologies, from batteries to sensors to computers that recognize patterns. The last, especially, has him most excited.

Computers, he explained, can now identify patterns in the remaining muscles in his stump. That means they know the patterns which signal that he wants to move his wrist or finger.

“And something that’s made of silicon, metal and and plastic would do my bidding,” said O’Brien.      

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