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Brain-Controlled Bionic Limbs Developed At MIT

BOSTON (CBS) – For amputees, robotic limbs that move like the real thing and are controlled by the mind are a game changer.

The "smart limbs" being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are possible because of the Ewing Amputation. The procedure developed between MIT and Brigham and Women's Hospital protects the nerves and muscles so the limb can continue to communicate with the brain.

"So being both the scientist and the user I have advantages that other people don't have," said MIT professor Hugh Herr, who helped develop the surgery and is leading development of the robotic limbs.

Hugh Herr
MIT professor Hugh Herr (WBZ-TV)

He's also a double amputee himself. "My legs are basically power tools," Herr says. "So I go home at night, I put my batteries into a charger."

Herr uses a form of robotic limbs but what's different about the "smart limbs" is that the Ewing Amputation allows the brain to control the machine.

"So when we did our first human patient and we put the bionic limb on him and we saw natural movements emerged, emerging through the mechatronics in natural ways it was truly exhilarating," Herr said.

Rebecca Mann
Rebecca Mann tests smart limb at MIT (WBZ-TV)

"So it's sort of like an extension of your body," said Rebecca Mann as she tried the smart limb. "Pretending I'm pointing and flexing my foot and I feel my foot pointing and flexing. And that the results of that is that the robot flexes."

Brandon Korona injured his leg in Afghanistan and became the first veteran to have the Ewing Amputation.

"And being able to kind of have something that I can control with my mind still even though my foot is not there. It kind of brings everything full circle," Korona said. "It starts to begin to feel like your own limb."

He's now training to run the Boston Marathon in 2020 and this September Rebecca and Brandon ran the Falmouth Road Race with fellow amputee Tammy Jerome.

Smart limb
Smart prosthetic being tested at MIT (WBZ-TV)

"We started together, we finished together and we pushed each other to do it," Jerome said.

This group was brought together though the "Stepping Strong Center" created at Brigham by the family of marathon bombing survivor Gillian Reny.

The grants awarded by Stepping Strong are part of what made the Ewing Amputation possible paving the way for the future of prosthetics.

"It's a wonderful experience as a researcher to put something on a person that has a missing limb," Herr said. "To put a robot on their leg and they walk away and start crying or laughing and giggling and say, 'my gosh I have my body back, I have leg back, I have my life back.'"

One of the next steps in the prosthetics project at MIT is designing new sockets.

The goal is to create an improved interface between the amputation and robotic limb.

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