“Waiting For an Arm and a Leg”
by Suzanne Sataline
Popular Science, July, 2006
My friend Mike Rosenwald suggested I write to you. A former Nieman fellow, I’ve worked for almost 20 years at newspapers including The Philadelphia Inquirer, Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe, including a staff writer’s position at the Inquirer Sunday magazine. My freelance work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Glamour, The Washingtonian, as well as many newspapers. I have been covering science as a freelancer for the Boston Globe where I first learned about high-tech prosthetics
Spoils of War: How the Iraq war fueled the race for a bio-engineered limb.
One scientist is a mountain climber who yearned to make bionic legs that would replace the limbs he lost to frostbite at 17. His partner is a neuroscientist obsessed with untangling the brain’s language to muscles. Together they are part of a Veterans Administration and Brown University team launched on an sci-fi adventure: to remold the bodies of war veterans and other amputees, helping them walk, grasp and climb as they did before their injuries – and maybe better than they ever could.
The scientists involved have left behind battery-powered myoelectric arms that approximate hand movements through electrical impulses and the micro-processor C-leg, the most- commonly used prosthetic leg. The team is leaping past the rudimentary microprocessors powering limbs today and delving into the world of bio-engineered body parts. If the group is successful, the project will foreshadow the future abilities for a generation of injured men and women.
Brown’s newly announced Center for Rebuilding, Regenerating and Restoring Function After Limb Loss has goals far more lofty than creating off-the-shelf arms and legs. The center plans to develop a toolkit of techniques that could revolutionize prosthetics, translating body and brain signals into movements that mimic natural kinetics.
They have been tinkering with computer-driven legs that calculate speed and force; artificial tissues that might regenerate cartilage; limb-lengthening techniques that could allow doctors to attach prosthetics to the most gravely injured. One crew is focusing on the big prize: implanting
super fast computer chips in the human body, allowing amputees to power prosthetics through thought.
The work is driven by an extraordinary need. Nearly six percent of the 9,700 soldiers wounded in Iraq have lost limbs, compared with 3 percent from past wars, according to U.S. Senate data. Soldiers today survive wounds that would have killed them in Vietnam. Core-protecting Kevlar vests have been their salvation, but they have not stopped bombs and shrapnel from ripping off entire limbs, even stubs, making it nearly impossible for doctors to attach prosthetics. Besides veterans, Brown scientists say nearly 1.3 million US citizens missing one or more limbs will one day benefit from ongoing prosthetics work.
I am proposing a narrative feature that would trace the story behind the center’s creation, watching two of its scientists perform the most cutting edge work, and monitoring some of the progress made by the first volunteers starting work with them.
Countless newspapers and magazines have printed stories and photos of Iraqi war veterans on crutches with dangling useless reminders of limbs. I would begin by touching down at Walter Reed Medical Center, where I’d introduce one soldier cared for there and tell about his injuries, health and the rehab technology he would be using, mentioning the limitations and discomfort. This way the reader has a visual and sensory clue how difficult a prosthetic can be.
Then we would cut to Roy Aaron, Brown Medical School’s professor of orthopedics, who was haunted each time he read or saw a soldier with a dangling limb. After a back injury confined Aaron to bed, he dictated notes asking the federal government to fund a bio-hybrid prosthetics effort. The government, he wrote, was on the brink of caring for the largest number of newly disabled veterans since Vietnam – again, youth in their 20s eager for full lives. The artificial limbs would be limiting and damaging. Who wouldn’t recall Homer’s prosthetic hooks in The Best Years of Our Lives or Gary Sinise’s sergeant in Forest Gump? A scientific center, Aaron wrote, could transform these lives by marrying cell biology, tissue engineering, osteointegration, physics, neurology and robotics. In short: “biohybrid” limbs could one day allow a vet to move effortlessly, powered by mere thoughts.
The story would then introduce the work going on. Hugh Herr, an assistant professor, Program in Media Arts and Sciences and director of MIT’s Biomechatronics Group, has spent recent years building artificial lower limbs powered by microchips. He has created artificial ankles and an electronic knee that can analyze information about its environment and make adjustments on the fly. He is the lab’s first tester, as he is a double amputee. Now he’s building joints that can create the mechanical force needed to walk and climb. He will inject BIONTM, a wireless microchip about the size of a grain of rice, into existing leg muscle that can read nerve signals and tell the artificial knee or ankle to take off. Herr gets cocky when he discusses his bionic body parts, saying they will be better than nature – able to prevent falls and stave off fatigue.
John Donoghue, the Henry Merritt Wriston Professor and chairman in Brown’s Department of Neuroscience, will continue his work on brain power. In the 80s he started listening to rats’ and monkeys’ brain chatter and coded signals allowing monkeys to move a cursor with their thoughts. Later, he implanted a device that relayed neural signals to a computer, allowing a human subject to type letters by thinking them. It was slow and primitive, but it was a start.
Donoghue is currently recording brain signals, decoding them, and transforming them into movement commands that control a computer cursor. A 25-year-old quadraplegic man is starring as the Bionic Subject at Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems Inc., Donoghue’s company. The switches on lights, changes television channels and opens e-mail using just his mind. It is the first big break that would allow paralyzed people to control their prosthetic arms or legs.
Between discussing experiments and progress, the article would briefly detail the history of prosthetic devices – from the first crude attempts during the Civil War to the uses Herr and Donoghue imagine for their work. It would wrap with a successful day with one of Donoghue’s brainy testers. The article would conclude with the soldier and his thoughts for the promise of his life if he one day could move freely again.
The article can’t help but be current because the field is changing so rapidly. Three months ago when I met Herr he spoke in general about wanting to plant chips inside bodies to control limb movement. Now his lab is poised to start. Donoghue is now experimenting with several paralyzed people, a recent development.
Newspapers noted the center’s creation. And a few short articles have appeared in recent years on aspects of Donoghue and Herr’s work separately. Notably, Forbes and Nature focused on how Donoghue’s lab was using paraplegics to move cursors. But almost nothing was written about adapting that technology to prosthetics use or the priority this work has now that thousands more soldiers are fighting. In 2001, Wired wrote about Herr and three others who were developing computer-driven ways to walk, but the article focused on technology that is quite old now. No story had the color or texture gathered from time spent at the labs watching experiments. And none have featured patients.
I interviewed Herr several months ago and quickly realized his work was too good to waste in a newspaper account. The folks at MIT, Brown and the VA are eager to grant access for the story. I’m in Cambridge, a bike ride to Herr’s lab and a train-ride to Providence.
The story would be a showcase for great art and exciting graphics. Herr’s lab is like Gepetto’s workshop, with high-tech fake legs — skin-colored titanium molds wrapped around electronic boards and chips. Graphics could explain how his bionic leg calculates speed and force and how Donoghue’s subjects literally power their thoughts.
This is the perfect moment for this story, a time when several magazines have printed emotional articles and images of limb-less soldiers while barely mentioning the technology that could transform the lives of disabled people. It’s an important story that needs to get out.