By Michael Blanding
It's March 2022 and Bradley Burkhard is sitting in an MIT lab, doing his best to follow instructions. “Move your index finger,” says technician Mikey Fernandez, and a finger moves dutifully up and down. “What about the other digits?” he asks, and other fingers curl, a bit more awkwardly. “The thumb?” Fernandez asks. There’s only the barest of perceptible movement. “Yeah, the thumb’s not really doing a whole lot,” the 32-year-old Burkhard sighs, slumped back in an office chair. He’s been at this now for three days, and clearly he’s getting tired.
The fact that Burkhard can move any fingers is practically a miracle. The hand he controls is not his own, but a robotic prosthesis clamped to a lab bench 3 feet away. A tangle of 16 white wires extends back to Burkhard’s residual arm, which ends just above the elbow. The aluminum and rubber prosthesis looks like an android arm from a science fiction movie, and indeed it is called the LUKE arm after the Star Wars hero who famously lost his hand. The next-generation artificial limb, created by Segway inventor Dean Kamen and his team, allows for a finely articulated range of motion. But the real miracle isn’t that arm, it’s Burkhard’s own — and the first-of-its-kind surgery that allows him to control the prosthesis with finely tuned electrical signals from his residual muscles.
As Burkhard’s muscles flex under electrodes connected to those 16 wires, lines of computer code scroll past on a monitor. Fernandez and other scientists at the MIT Media Lab will use that output to calibrate the prosthesis to Burkhard’s motions, in a way they hope will eventually give him an unprecedented amount of control. Ultimately, they plan to attach the artificial limb to Burkhard’s own, and allow him to use it seamlessly, exactly how his arm worked before an ATV accident three years ago.
“Doing amputations kind of sucks,” says Dr. Matthew Carty, a reconstructive plastic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “It has been regarded for thousands of years as a failure — like, I can no longer help this patient by trying to save their limb, so we just gotta cut it off. But we do ourselves and our patients a disservice by thinking about it that way.” This procedure is a new way of thinking.