Prosthetic limb technology and elective amputation

Recently on the BBC World Service I followed a news article about a young man who decided to have his hand amputated in order to have a prosthetic version fitted. His hand had been damaged in a motorbike accident and was not fully functioning, but was however still attached to his arm.

His decision rather took me aback, here was a person choosing to improve the performance of a hand with a replacement. This is fundamentally different to fitting a prosthetic hand to a person that has either lost one or was born without one. The problem seems to be in the quality of prosthetic limbs.

A prosthetic hand

An example of a high technology prosthetic hand

Prosthetic limbs can be operated through the existing muscle system, for example they can be attached to existing muscles in the arm or by using electrical impulses. In this case the muscle use generates an electrical impulse that makes the hand move.

Scientists are currently testing a system that works directly from the brain. Implants register the brain’s impulses and send them directly to the hand. You think about the movement and the hand moves.

There is another advantage too, sensors in the fingers can send signals back to the brain so the user can actually feel the object they are touching.

All of this raises some questions, soon technology will provide us with a fully functioning prosthetic hand that the user controls directly with their brain. It will be hard wearing, reliable and you can touch hot things without burning yourself, it will in fact be better that a human hand.

People might then have elective amputation in order to get one. Who can make legal and ethical decisions about such an intervention? This argument also has implications for sport. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has recently qualified for the Olympic Games in London and will be competing with 2 prosthetic legs.

Oscar Pistorius - the fastest man on no legs

Nicknamed 'the fastest man on no legs' this is Oscar Pistorius in Greenwich London before next years Olympics

Here we are moving into a discussion about the confines of the human body, but also about enhancement. Maybe he even has an advantage over human legged athletes.

Have a look at Transcendent Man for a futurist view of how robotics and medicine in general might change humanity in the future.

Further discussion of the ethical and responsibility issues raised by scientific advancement and innovation can be found on the Bassetti Foundation website, including all the links relating to the stories above. I collaborate with the foundation and publish through their site.

13 thoughts on “Prosthetic limb technology and elective amputation

  1. However you look at it, that prosthetic limb is still something artificial, it will never be your hand or your foot. And i doubt it they’ll manage to make it feel like a real limb. Not even close. I don’t know about that guy that chose to cut his hand off, but i’d never do it.

    • Thanks for the comment Amit, I agree it will probably never feel like a real human limb, but it may well have concrete advantages over a non perfect one. Anyone who has had a problem that affects their life knows that there is a line that they would not like to cross. Even surgery on the knee leaves you in a situation of not being to play football any more. And what is the difference between having a hip replacement because you have difficulty walking and replacing a hand because you can’t hold a pen any more?

      • Christopher (admin team)

        Great to see you replying to comments Jonny.

        One word of advice for the future, if you hit the ‘Reply‘ button underneath someone’s comment, the reply gets nested beneath the original comment, and using a clever plugin called ReplyMe, the author of the original comment gets your reply sent to them via email!

        I have moved your comment for you this time, just to help you out 🙂

    • If you watch the BBC piece posted in copy on the Bassetti Foundation website you see the guy discussing his choice, as well as a Dr with a mechanical hand talking about the experience.

  2. It can be a way out for people who lose their parts in accidents, but I hope it won’t become a fashion to change normal parts for such ones.

    • Well it isn’t too different from having your nose done, and maybe more justified than a breast enlargement so why not? And the more people take the plunge the faster the technology will develop. Sorry to be so provocative but the war in Afghanistan has helped to push the technology to this level with so many soldiers coming home injured. Demand fuels innovation so…..

  3. I think this is really amazing technology. Fundamentally, as technology progresses society will be faced with similar ethical conundrums.

    However, I think this type of advancement is a viable option for those who have been affected by accidents, disease, or have been born with defects in their limbs. As you mentioned, this is especially true for soldiers returning home from the war. Limb replacements can provide people with mobility and functionality that could help provide a life of independence.

    But, to be an every day occurence like cosmetic surgery seems a bit Orwellian.

    • Christopher (admin team)

      It is interesting stuff… as you say Rich there are ethical issues, but I think that it is the future for those who want their limbs back.

      Thanks for the comment, welcome to Technology Bloggers 🙂
      Christopher – Admin Team

    • There has to be a moment when the current limb becomes redundant because there is something wrong with it, but how can we draw this line? If I lose a finger in the car door should I consider a new hand? maybe not but a thumb? A paralysis? These kind of decisions are already being taken.

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