Prosthetic Limbs Controlled By Thought Are In Development

The developing technology could make prosthetic limbs as natural as real ones.

Prosthetic arm

Prosthetic limbs are getting futuristic. Prosthesis photo via Shutterstock

Consider how easily you go about daily tasks like grabbing your keys as you head out the door or picking up the phone when it rings—it’s without thought, almost instinctive. The same could soon be said for people doing those tasks with the help of a prosthetic limb.

The Defense Department Agency (DARPA) has been at work since 2009 developing prosthetic limbs that can actually be controlled by the wearer’s brain, just like any other part of the body. Unlike current prosthetics, which never truly becomes as natural as the limb they replace, the new technology would rely on the wearer’s nerve signaling to function. The technology is called Reliable Neuro-Interface Technology (RE-NET), and it allows the signals sent from the body’s existing muscles and nerves to control the new limb. A report from The Atlantic quotes the Department of Defense about the efforts, saying, “Basically, they’re working on a bionic limb interface that will allow amputees to control their bionic limbs with their brains.”

A report from DARPA quotes the research programs’ manager, Jack Judy:

“With the RE-NET program, DARPA took on the mission of giving our wounded vets increased control of advanced prosthetics,” added Judy. “TMR is already being used by numerous amputees at military hospitals. As the RE-NET program continues, we expect that the limb-control and sensory-feedback capabilities of peripheral-interface technologies will increase and that they will become even more widely available in the future.”

Of course, this technology is a long way away from widespread use, though it has been tested on Army personnel, and there are lots of kinks left to work out. But the fact that we’re approaching an age where major limb amputees have several ways to go back to normal life is extraordinary. And we can’t help but think of the numerous marathon bombing victims who lost legs when we hear about news like this. Hopefully, it will be a viable option sooner rather than later for their, and many others’, sakes.