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DARPA's Cutting-Edge Programs Revolutionize Prosthetics

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8, 2006 – In the old Star Wars movie "The Empire Strikes Back," Luke Skywalker gets a new, fully functional right hand after Darth Vader chops his off with a light saber. Today, thanks to work under way through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, servicemembers who have lost limbs in the line of duty could experience something almost as revolutionary in the years ahead.

Among the cutting-edge technology DARPA is developing is a highly advanced, mechanical arm that works and looks just like a human one, Jan Walker, a DARPA spokesperson, told the American Forces Press Service.

DARPA has awarded a $30.4 million contract for the program to Johns Hopkins University. Researchers at the Baltimore university's applied physics laboratory hope to create a prosthetic arm within the next four years that enables wearers to feel and manipulate objects, lift up to 60 pounds and conduct normal, everyday tasks, even in the dark, Walker said.

The research, part of DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 program, represents a quantum leap in the advancement of prosthetic devices, she said. It basically involves connecting the limb directly into the peripheral and central nervous system so users can operate the arm naturally, just as they move their biological arm.

DARPA is looking at technologies and breakthroughs to develop a prosthetic arm that's controlled by the brain through thought, Walker explained. The limb, as envisioned, would enable users to move like they normally do, without having to think about the actual process to make it happen.

In another DARPA program, researchers at DEKA Research and Development Corp. in Manchester, N.H., are collaborating with researchers and clinicians around the country to create a prosthetic limb with near-human strength and appearance, Walker said.

Working with an $18.1 million grant awarded under DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2007 program, the company's Integrated Solutions Division hopes to create a prosthetic arm that looks like a real one and represents a major advance in currently available technology, she said.

DARPA hopes to have this advanced prosthetic ready for clinical trials within two years.

The dual programs represent the largest pool of funding for prosthetics in at least a decade, Walker said.

Improved body armor is saving lives that might otherwise have been lost during earlier wars, resulting in a surge in amputees from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense officials noted. Two DoD centers - one at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and one at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio - are dedicated specifically to amputees' care.

Army Col. Geoff Ling, DARPA's manager for the Revolutionizing Prosthetics programs, said the agency is committed to ensuring that servicemembers who have lost limbs in the line of duty can go on to live normal lives.

"At DARPA, we have a vision of a future where a soldier who has lost an extremity in battle will regain full use of that limb again," he said. "We will get to this future by making revolutionary, neurally controlled prosthetics."

DARPA is advancing the state of the art in prosthetics as the agency works to deliver an advanced upper-extremity prosthetic device within the next two years, Ling said. In four years, DARPA plans on having a prosthetic so revolutionary that it is indistinguishable in use and appearance to a missing arm.

The results of these efforts will help transform the lives of servicemembers wounded in combat who have sacrificed greatly, Ling said. "We will do whatever is necessary to restore these people who have given up so much for the idea of freedom and in service to their country," he said.

The concept of prosthetic limbs for wounded warriors goes back centuries. A sacred Indian poem, written in Sanskrit between 3500 and 1800 B.C., tells of the warrior queen Vishpla who lost her leg in battle. As the story goes, Vishpla was fitted with a prosthetic leg made of iron so she could return to the battlefield.

The first large-scale program to fit injured soldiers with prosthesis was introduced in the United States during the Civil War, according to historical accounts.

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