Melissa Loomis, a woman from Canton, Ohio, who had her arm amputated in 2015 after being attacked by a raccoon, is pushing the envelope of next generation robotic appendages. Soft-spoken and funny, she joked with us about her friends sending her stuffed raccoons following her accident; showed us pictures of her dogs, who were fighting the aforementioned raccoon that fateful day; and moved a robotic arm with her mind as her surgeon, Dr. Ajay Seth, jumped up and down with excitement.
Until recently, if you lost a limb, the only options for finding a comparable replacement were fairly limited and mostly aesthetic solutions. But that’s changing thanks in part to projects like the DARPA-funded Modular Prosthetic Limb, an advanced robotic arm controlled by thought and developed in part by scientists and engineers at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory.
But the advancement of brain machine interfaces doesn’t come easily, and in true cybernetic fashion, development of the most advanced bionic limb in the world can only move forward thanks to a delicate dance between patients and technology.
In the first episode of Humans+, a series following the future of human enhancement, we followed Melissa Loomis as she went to test out Modular Prosthetic Limb for the first time. Thanks to a new surgery called targeted sensory reinnervation, Melissa can sense touch through the MPL as well, a first for a patient in the US.
While the MPL has been in development for close to a decade, and is already used by a handful of patients, one of the biggest hurdles to truly closing the loop between man and machine remains simulating a human hand's natural sense of touch.
The limb is currently outfitted with over 100 contact and temperature sensors, but engineers have been unable to fully test the arm’s capabilities due to the fact that it's incredibly difficult to interface a patient's nervous system with a machine.
Melissa’s sensory reinnervation surgery remapped each individual nerve responsible for touch from her hand back into her arm. When each nerve is attached to the limb through electrodes, she’s able to feel sensation and temperature feedback through each individual digit.
The technology has a ways to go. Melissa, a huge dog advocate, said she’ll be happy once she’s able to pet her dogs again and feel texture again. But it’s surgeries like hers that will continue to push the sophistications of bionic robotics further than ever before.