09. 21. 2006
Claudia Mitchell is robobeautiful
Claudia Mitchell and I are both 26, but she's 1) a pretty lady and 2) the first woman to receive a bionic arm. After a tragic motorcycle accident took her left arm Ms. Mitchell was at a loss to do her daily tasks like folding laundry or peeling a banana. She volunteered as a test subject for a program interfacing advanced robotic prosthetics directly into the nerves that had previously controlled the arm she had lost. The resulting marriage of body and build gives her a properly articulated arm that functions through thought.
How does it work? A plastic surgeon rerouted the nerve endings that used to control the muscles in her missing arm; those nerves are grafted into chest muscles. When Claudia thinks about moving her missing arm those nerves still fire, and it stimulates the chest muscles. Where prosthetic makers once tried to overcome the phantom limb phenomenon, they are now finding that those signals are the perfect way to control a robotic arm.
These little guys are being developed with NIH grants as replacements for injured soldiers, and the wearers are encouraged to really put them through the paces as limb replacements. High tech prosthetics don't come cheap; prices hover around the $40,000 range, but ABC's WMDT reports that some insurance companies are now covering the costs.
The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago has done fantastic Steve Austin style work, and I have an amazing respect for people like Hugh Herr and Todd Kuiken who are using their technological aptitude to help others. Don't miss Rachel Metz's great feature on the people and technology behind these advances in prosthetic body parts.