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When two pressure cooker bombs exploded at last week’s Boston Marathon, their contents shredded the lower extremities of many of their victims. To date, 14 people have had one limb amputated. At least two women have had both legs amputated.

04272013-5Coincidentally, the events of the Boston Marathon focus our attention on amputation just as the Amputee Coalition of America launches Show Your Mettle Day (April 27) in celebration of April being Limb Loss Awareness Month. The aim of the day is for amputees to show off their metal and to highlight the limitless lifestyles amputees lead.

How have prosthetics changed? How do prosthetics work? What hope do medical and engineering innovations offer amputees? This week, learn more about prosthetics, and the very cool future of bionics.


04272013-6According to the Amputee Coalition of America, approximately 2 million Americans are amputees. Nearly 185,000 new Americans a year suffer some degree of leg amputation. In recent years, more than 1,300 veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have become amputees, many of them leg amputees. In the general population, trauma (45%) and vascular disease (54%), such as diabetes, are leading causes of amputations. However, cancer and birth defects are other reasons for amputations.

Consider all of the seemingly simple tasks your body completes without conscious thought every day: opening a jar, opening a door, folding a towel, stepping into the shower, walking down stairs, carrying a tray of food. How much more difficult would these tasks be without a finger, a hand, both legs? Prosthetics help amputees regain some abilities that become more difficult with the loss (or partial loss) of a limb.

04272013-1Prosthetic limbs have existed for millennia. They may conjure images of Captain Hook and Pegleg Pete but, thankfully, prosthetics have advanced considerably since the days of hooks and pegs. A brief history of prosthetics reveals how the technology changed over time, and reveals a link between military campaigns and companies, and medical and scientific personnel.

Each prosthetic is a unique match to the person who wears it. It takes several weeks to measure, create, and fit an amputee with her prosthesis. HowStuffWorks explains how prosthetic limbs are made and controlled. Watch the first and second videos at limb-loss.org to familiarize yourself with the parts of a prosthetic and the process for making one.

Biology Meets Technology

04272013-3For all the advances, traditional prosthetics remain imperfect replacements. They fail to capture the full range of human movement. However, newer prosthetics offer innovative solutions. New bionics—mechanical systems that aim to replace body parts—offer amputees greater agility, a fuller range of movement, and more precision. Entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen explains to a TED Talk audience how scientists recently came to focus on improving prosthetics, and reveals some advances in prosthetics. In another TED Talk, doctor and engineer, Tedd Kuiken explains with more detail the science behind the new bionics, and how it is changing life for amputees. Review how these advances push prosthetics closer to being life-like.  Explain how traditional prosthetics worked and how newer ones are different. What limitations do prosthetics like Dr. Kuiken's overcome? What limitations still exist?

04272013-2The most recent innovations in bionics were once again inspired by the military. Dr. Ling, a former general, challenged scientists to develop more sophisticated prosthetics. Doctors and engineers paired to create prosthetics that are controlled not by electronic impulses in surviving nerves, or by in-tact muscles, but by the brain. 60 Minutes Scott Pelley investigates this revolutionary technology. Watch the 60 Minutes report, Breakthrough and explain how this technology assists amputees. Dr. Ling dreams that this technology will someday be applied to “patients with strokes, patients with cerebral palsy, and the elderly.” How do you envision this might help those patients? What other people might it help?

Bionics is not limited to arms and legs. View Popular Science’s gallery of the bionic human, a collection of 15 bionic innovations. Some slides share innovations that have yet to reach the public, such as the brain-controlled hand scientists pioneered at Dr. Ling’s prodding, However, the bionics featured in other slides highlight replacements that are being used, such as those for hands and feet. Perhaps, the 6 million dollar bionic man, a combination of all of these robo-parts, is not that far off. What is your opinion of this possibility? What is your reaction to these bionics and the possibilities they create?

04272013-7Hugh Herr is an engineer, a biophysicist, and a double amputee. He questions the nature of disability and predicts science will soon eliminate disabilities. Herr explains how bionics mixes science and design, predicts the future of prosthetics, and shares his own story. Join the audience and watch Herr’s TED Talk presentation. What does he say that resonates with you? What did he say that you find fascinating, inspiring, or puzzling?

Throughout history, prosthetics have been designed to be functional. Traditionally, most have not been pretty nor have they reflected an amputee’s personal style. Scott Summit noticed this. He designs prosthetics that fit not only a person’s unique physical needs but their personality as well. View his TED Talk about beautiful artificial limbs.