By Alyssa Bereznak, Tech Columnist
This summer, 40 years after losing both of his arms in a freak electrical accident, Colorado resident Leslie Baugh got two new bionic limbs. And after just 10 days of training, he began using them to move objects from shelf to shelf, controlling them with only his thoughts.
Baugh, as Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory reports, is the first “bilateral shoulder-level amputee” to wear and control two modular prosthetic limbs at the same time. The technology has been in development for more than a decade. It was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and was tested on Baugh as part of an experimental program run at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Though his progress is groundbreaking, accomplishing this medical first was no easy feat. Baugh first had to undergo an intense surgery — performed by the institute’s medical director, Albert Chi — that rearranged (in medical terms, “reinnervated”) the nerves in his chest.
“I remember when I first came out from under it, the pain — I don’t even remember the original being that much excruciating pain,” Baugh said in a video released by the university.
After the surgery was complete, the doctors used a 360-degree scanning method to produce a prototype for a cast to fit around Baugh’s body. This was meant to function as both a support brace for his new limbs and a platform on which his reinnervated nerves could make the brain-to-chest nerve connections required to move.
They also began training Baugh on a virtual reality system that was meant to mimic the robot arms he’d soon receive. With a collection of nerve monitors stuck to his shoulders, Baugh would look at a computer screen as he practiced thinking about lifting his elbow up and down. If he successfully made the neural connection, the virtual arm would move just how he’d intended.
“Once the training sessions were complete, and they released me and let me be the computer … I just go into a whole different world,” Baugh said.
Baugh now has access to the areas of motion most people take for granted in their upper bodies: shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands. Within all these categories, he can move an amazing 30 degrees altogether. Though this means he can move cups and balls from one place to another, it’s a complicated process. He must move each joint into position separately — for instance, first shoulder, then elbow, then wrist.
Baugh’s story comes just months after University of Pittsburgh researchers presented a paper on the recent improvements in robotic limbs. Elsewhere, BrainGate is developing a limb that requires a chip to be implanted in a person’s mind, and Duke University scientists premiered a mind-controlled exoskeleton in June at the opening of the World Cup.
“I think we’re just getting started at this point,” Mike McLoughlin, the prosthetic program manager, said in the video. “It’s like the early days of the Internet. There’s a tremendous amount of potential ahead of us. The next five, 10 years are going to bring some really phenomenal advancements.”
Baugh’s hopes are much more humble:
“Maybe for once I’ll be able to put change in a pop machine and get the pop out of it,” he said. “Simple things like that that most people never think of.”