Prosthetics are becoming more than just limb replacements. Patients are seeking devices that enhance their lifestyle, show off their artistic side, or are put together in new ways to make their lives better.
Doctors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, are partnering with engineering students to help female soldiers not only get better limbs but also help them do things the women thought they would never be able to do again. Inspired by what could be, these new prosthetics are improving the quality of life for those patients and helping them feel better, show off and sometimes do things they never could do before.
Despite improvements in prosthetics design, the engineering students at Johns Hopkins University found most are built for men’s feet, and the options for women are few even though almost half of all amputation procedures in 2013 were performed on women, according to the Virginia-Based Amputation Coalition.
The students made a prosthetic that allows women amputees to wear high heels, once a staple in their wardrobes but lost after losing a leg.
More than 1,800 female veterans with amputations have received care and services from the Veterans Administration since 2000.
"Basically, our prosthetics department is constantly looking to improve the function of all prosthetics in order to improve the quality of life for those service members, veterans and their families with amputations," said Dave Laufer, director of orthotic and prosthetic services at Walter Reed.
It is part of a leading edge among prosthetics makers to do more than just replace a limb or restore a sense. Companies are partnering to make devices that are stylish, sturdy and highly functional, even if they do look like something from the future.
At the Human X Design Conference in New York City Aug. 3, panelists and guests talked about and showcased what prosthetics could become and some of the amazing advancements they have made.
One company, Open Bionics, has received awards for creating affordable bionic hands for amputees. Wanting to continue pushing the limits, they partnered with Eidos-Montreal, a video game developer of the "Deus Ex" franchise that features human augmentation in a near future setting. Open Bionics had the technical knowledge of how prosthetics need to work, and Eidos-Montreal provided the artistic flair that so many amputees now want for their artificial limbs.
The result was something wonderful for prosthetic patients. The artificial limbs could be more than just functional. They could be expressions of individuality.
"Traditionally, doctors were making hands, cosmetic hands, that would pretend to be human, have fake skin, fake coloring and fake painting," said Samantha Payne, co-founder of Open Biotics. "Whereas now, there has been a huge change in attitudes. We all want to have different colored hair, tattoos. We want some expression. We really value that in our culture."
Internally, the new arms, called Titan arms, are designed to work better and more efficiently than other, older prosthetic arms. However, externally, they allow the user to showcase their sense of expression with an arm that looks like Adam Jensen’s arm from the video game, providing a better sense of self for the amputee.
Cathrine Disney, who was born without an arm, was given the opportunity to wear the Titan arm. She said she thought it would be weird to have two arms and hands, having made the choice at a young age to forgo any prosthetic device. But once she wore the device, she said it almost felt natural.
"I thought I would find it in the way, something I’ve got more of. I thought it would be weird, but it’s not," Disney said. "To begin with, it is an emotional thing. But I could hold something (with the Titan arm) and eat something with the other hand, and I’ve never been able to do that before."
The Titan arm doesn’t imbue Disney with any special powers, other than the ability to look cooler and feel better about her self-image. There are devices, however, that allow people to be stronger, jump higher, run faster, and, perhaps, control technology with our minds.
When Oscar Pistorius became the first double-leg amputee to participate in the Olympics, it not only opened the door for other amputees to see what they could do with new devices but inspired normal humans to augment themselves.
Neil Harbisson is the first human to be officially recognized as a cyborg by a government body, the United Kingdom, when they allowed his passport photo to include his enhancement. Harbisson has an antenna attached inside his skull to allow him to hear the light frequencies of color, including infrared and ultraviolet rays.
Since 2004, Harbisson, who is also gray-scale colorblind, said the antenna gives him an additional sense to process. He said he receives a sensation inside his skull that corresponds to a particular color, allowing him to hear colors in a new way. When he set out on this project, his idea was rejected, because it wasn’t a therapeutic enhancement but a selective one.
"They see a difference between regenerating existing body parts or regenerating pre-existing senses," Harbisson said. "In my case, this is a new body part. It is an antenna. And also, it is the creation of a new sense, which goes beyond the visual spectrum."
Haribisson considers himself to be transhuman, someone who resembles a human in most respects but who has power and abilities beyond those of typical humans. It would appear he’s not alone.
There is a 2016 presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party. A transhumanist was elected to Parliament in Italy.
Theoretical discussion about advanced prosthetics and augmentation and their place in the world and human evolution has been going on for decades, but the advancements in prosthetic technology are drawing people ever closer to a day when many people may choose to become and experience more than they currently do.
However, today’s amputees are enjoying the fruits of those advancements, allowing them to resume activities, express themselves and improve their emotional states of mind.