A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

New Tech Could Help Control Prosthetic Limbs


Researchers demonstrate accuracy, safety of using magnetic sensors to track muscle length during movement.

Using a simple set of magnets, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University have come up with a sophisticated way to monitor muscle movements, which they hope will make it easier for people with amputations to control their prosthetic limbs.

In a new pair of papers published in the journal Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, the researchers demonstrated the accuracy and safety of their magnet-based system, which can track the length of muscles during movement. The studies, performed with animal models, offer hope that the strategy could be used to help people with prosthetic devices control them in a way that more closely mimics natural limb movement.

The results improve understanding of how muscles change length, generate force and produce power during physical movement, says Thomas Roberts, PhD, a professor of biology in Brown’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology affiliated with The Warren Alpert Medical School, who is a co-author of both papers.

“This technique gives us the ability to measure muscle mechanical function during ordinary movements, which is essential for understanding how muscles work to move us around,” says Roberts, whose research aims to integrate understanding of muscle physiology with modern approaches in functional morphology and biomechanics.

The new technique also has practical applications outside the lab.

“These recent results demonstrate that this tool can be used outside the lab to track muscle movement during natural activity, and they also suggest that the magnetic implants are stable and biocompatible and that they don’t cause discomfort,” says Cameron Taylor, PhD, a research scientist at MIT and co-lead author of both papers.

In one of the studies, the researchers showed that they could accurately measure the lengths of turkeys’ calf muscles as the birds ran, jumped, and performed other natural movements. In the other study, they showed that small magnetic beads used for the measurements do not cause inflammation or other adverse effects when implanted in muscle.

“I am very excited for the clinical potential of this new technology to improve the control and efficacy of bionic limbs for persons with limb loss,” said Hugh Herr, PhD, a professor of media arts and sciences, co-director of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics at MIT, and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

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