“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was…” starts the opening to “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
That of course was just a TV show. But step by step bionic technology is becoming real: “The simplest way to explain it – we’ve rewired him.”
We’ve seen an Olympic Athlete compete on prosthetic feet. I once shook hands with an injured soldier with a mechanical hand that he controls using the remaining muscles in his arm.
But there has never been a mechanical limb that could be controlled the way a natural limb is controlled – directly by the brain.
“I seamlessly walk up a set of stairs – and just go up foot over foot up the stairs, like you do,” says Zac Vawter.
Four years ago, Vawter, a software engineer from Yelm, was injured in a motorcycle accident – and lost almost all of his right leg. He was fitted with a standard prosthetic leg which him to stand and walk, but his surgeon turned out to be an expert in rewiring nerves, and thought it would work on Zac.
So he was sent to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago where research scientist Levi Hargrove worked as a part of a program funded by the Army to design a bionic leg that could be controlled directly by the nerve impulses which were still being sent from Zach’s brain to the leg that was no longer there.
“So you just think about moving along, the device pushes you along, pushes you up stairs, helps control you when you walk downstairs. And it does everything in a seamless manner,” explained Hargrove.
And the first time Zac was hooked up, and tried it, “It was a pretty amazing experience because I hadn’t moved my ankle in a way that I could see for two years.”
For now, Zac can only use it a week at at time while he’s at the Chicago Clinic and it still has bugs to work out – for example, he can’t run with it, only walk.
But the army is hoping that maybe five years from now losing a limb just means you get a new one.