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Better Artificial Limbs Restore Amputee's Normal Function

The science of artificial limbs is known as prosthetics. And for those with prosthetic arms, technological advances are opening up a whole world of opportunity and capability.

Health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains how artificial limbs now enable amputees to do more than ever before.

At first glance it's hard to tell that electrical engineer Kenny Whitten is a double amputee. He lost both arms when he was electrocuted 15 years ago. Thanks to the science of prosthetics, the loss of his arms didn't mean the loss of a normal life.

"I never would have dreamed or thought of anything like this," says Ken. "I am able to be self-sufficient, work, support my family, and do the things that I want to do."

Ken's arms are myoelectric--controlled by the remaining muscles in his upper arms. "There's electrodes inside the socket that pick up the flexors and extensors of the arm," says Scott Sabolich, a prosthetist in Oklahoma City, where researchers fine-tune the technology to allow for better control of the hand. "The old systems used to be the old analog systems that would either open or close. Now we have the full digital proportional hands that go nice and slow or they can go fast or they can go anything in between."

"You can slow down and not crush things with it. You have more control over it," says Ken, who is a valuable guinea pig for new developments.

"He's beta testing a lot of the stuff that comes out on a daily basis," says Sabolich. "Ken is just about the most rugged person you could put a set of arms on. We figure if it lasts any amount of time on him, it'll last the general public a lot longer."

New software for the Internet allows Ken to tweak the settings on his arms or get a tune-up from the lab. "I don't have to undo a bunch of little screws. I can just plug into the computer and do all my adjusting there."

Even with all of the advances over the last 15 years, Ken hopes there's still more to come. "You always wanna be better just like a race car. You wanna go faster. That's what I wanna do," says Ken. "I just want to go faster. I want it to be stronger and better."

Prosthetic limbs are also being tested that enable a sense of touch and the ability to feel hot and cold sensations.

What does the future of prosthetics hold?

The future of prosthetics is probably connecting directly to nerves to pick up the electrical signals coming from the brain to the nerves.

Is the prosthetic arm stronger than a normal arm?

The arm is only as strong as the body that supports it, but the grip of the hand is five times more powerful than a human hand.

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