Les Baugh, a Colorado man who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, is looking forward to being able to insert change into a soda machine and retrieving the beverage himself. But thanks to the wonders of science and technology -- and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) -- he'll regain some of those functions while making history as the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control two Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPLs).
This is the result of an on-site field study funded by APL and intended to assess the usability of the MPL, which was developed over the past decade as part of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program. But before he could wear and manipulate the prosthetic limbs, Baugh had to undergo targeted muscle reinnervation surgery.
"It’s a relatively new surgical procedure that reassigns nerves that once controlled the arm and the hand," explained Johns Hopkins Trauma Surgeon Albert Chi, M.D. "By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform."
By fully and wirelessly integrating the system into Baugh's body, he's able to control the prosthetic limbs as though they're a part of him. After just 10 days of training on a virtual reality version of the MPL, Baugh was able to suit up and move several objects, such as an empty cup from a counter-shelf height to a higher shelf -- the task required coordination of eight separate motions to complete. This is not something that's possible with currently available prosthetics.
"We expected him to exceed performance compared to what he might achieve with conventional systems, but the speed with which he learned motions and the number of motions he was able to control in such a short period of time was far beyond expectation," said APL's Courtney Moran, a prosthetist working with Baugh. "What really was amazing, and was another major milestone with MPL control, was his ability to control a combination of motions across both arms at the same time. This was a first for simultaneous bimanual control."
The achievement is being compared to the early days of the Internet, in that there's a whole world of potential out there and just around the corner. For Baugh, he's looking forward to going home and doing the simple things that most of us never think twice about.