Forty years ago, Les Baugh lost both his arms in a freak electrical accident.
This summer, he made history. With the help of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, Baugh became the first amputee to wear and control two prosthetic arms.
What's even cooler? He controlled them with his mind.
That's right – the prosthetic limbs' movements were dictated by Baugh's thoughts. To achieve this feat, Baugh first had to undergo a surgical procedure in which his existing nerves (the ones that used to control the movements in his hands and arms) were reassigned to tasks that could be carried out by the prosthetic arms. These nerves were then connected to the prosthetics so they could detect muscle movements, and interpret Baugh's desired motions.
Before the prosthetics were attached, Baugh needed to learn how to use them, a rather extensive process. But the training paid off. When the limbs were finally attached, Baugh was able to perform several fairly complex tasks -- including picking up a cup on one shelf and moving it to a higher shelf -- relatively quickly.
For now, the limbs are still prototypes and only work in the lab, but the researchers at John Hopkins hope to send Baugh a pair to use at home in the near future. And for Baugh, that's huge. "Maybe, for once, I'll be able to put change in a pop machine and get the pop out of it," Baugh said in a video about the project. "Simple things like that that most people never think of."
It's been an exciting couple of years for prosthetic technology. The FDA approved a mind-controlled prosthetic arm model, a biomedical engineering team in Chicago built a motorized knee and ankle prosthesis that can be controlled by neural signals and a team of researchers developed a bionic hand that translates real-time touch sensations.
But in the eyes of Mike McLoughlin, the chief engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
"I think we're just getting started at this point. It's like the early days of the Internet," he says in the video. "There's a tremendous amount of potential ahead of us and we just started down this road. I think the next five, 10 years are going to bring some really phenomenal advancements."
Watch the video explaining the project below.