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Stefan Mileschin 6th November 2012 06:27

Department of Defense funds neural-controlled bionic leg
A man who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident joined 3,000 others to climb 103 floors of the Willis Tower, formerly Sears' Tower, Chicago, using a mind controlled prosthetic leg as a result of a trial from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC).

After Zac Vawter, 31, had to have his left leg amputated after a vicious road accident three years ago, the RIC offered him a role in a trial that would see him equipped with a prosthetic leg - controlled by his mind and with a powered knee and ankle. Unlike traditional prosthesis, Vawter's leg could interact with him: if he pushed on the device to stand up, it understands what he's trying to do and helps.

The device weighs roughly 10 pounds and is packed full of equipment to analyse data and ensure that the leg doesn't fail - and knows what it's doing.

Before the climb, Vawter trained on an escalator at a gym. He said one of the main differences between traditional prosthesis and this leg is something most of us take for granted, taking stairs step over step. "With my standard prosthesis, I have to take every step with my good foot first and sort of lift or drag the prosthetic leg up," Vawter said. "With the bionic leg, it's simple, I take stairs like I used to, and can even take two at the time".

According to an interview with WLS, the leg itself was part of an $8 million project, funded by the US Department of Defense, as well as contributions from Vanderbilt University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Rhode Island and the University of New Brunswich.

Aside from rehabilitating Vawter, the purpose of this experiment was to test the bionic leg under extreme conditions. RIC's CEO Joanne Smith told WLS that few patients equipped with the leg in the future would use it for the same purpose - but from that perspective, the performance was "beyond measure".

Unfortunately for Vawter, the RIC will be holding onto the leg in Chicago - where they will continue to test it. Although the prototype was a success, the device will not be widely available for some time yet.

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