Around one in a thousand people is an amputee, that is, one without a limb they were born with. Furthermore, some are even less fortunate, born without one or more, the subjects of congenital amputation. Be it a limb owned now lost, or once never given, many must live a life often difficult and more challenging than most. But within the fields of medicine and robotics, it may just be that technology can gift them something close to what the rest of us are so lucky to have.
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.” – Carl Sagan
Amputation is more common than you think. And those living with an amputation, or born without a limb, can face challenges in their day to day lives. Susan is just one in this group of exceptional people. She told us;
"[Amputation] really affected my life as I had to make a lot of adjustments in how to do basic things, like shower or get around."
Like many who have suffered amputation, or have been born lacking a limb, there are social and practical stigmas that must be endured. Misunderstanding, judgement, isolation and often sadness are just some of the myriad issues that face her and many others. Whether a limb is lost in war, due to infection or indeed a car, work or public place accident, innumerable people just like her have not only made do, but thrived. Even when people don’t understand the pain.
Josh, having lived with two below knee amputations for over twenty years, is just one example. He told us;
"I think that the majority of amputees are some of the mentally strongest people in the world… We are taught our whole lives not to show weakness, and we just hold everything in."
But what help is out there for amputees? Suffering is both physical and psychological, and for the former at least, there is some exciting technology on the horizon.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible.
As we have already discussed in our article on Traumatic Spinal Injury, the future of rebuilding lives is one combining stem cell research, robotics, genetics and physics. Within spinal injury this means using optogenetics, that is genes sensitive to light, to regain control of damaged nerves and their associated limbs. Other progress has been in creating robotic prosthesis to assist in strength and coordination, some even activated by brain waves.
But this technology, in principle, has great potential for amputees. Perhaps the most striking is the development of 'consciously controlled limbs.' Researchers at Imperial College London have developed an ingenious way of using our brains to move robots. By time, trial and error, they have begun to recognise certain impulses that can be sent to a robotic limb in the same way the brain sends them to a hand. Think 'open hand', and with enough time, your new robot's hand will open.
And when combined with 'nerve detectors', the amputee may also be able to feel their new 'limb.' In fact, researchers showed in 2013 that a prosthetic hand could be trained to send impulses that the user could 'feel' through existing nerves. Although this technology is in its infancy, with greater time and knowledge it is possible that almost real sensation could not be far away.
Combined with other technology, that is the ability to regrow or repurpose nerves, the use of fully controllable and sensory limbs is an exciting one. It may be that in the not so far future that amputees may once again enjoy a life they once had, or one denied from birth. It is true to say that time is a healer, but hopefully given enough, it could become a giver too.
But from talking with some wonderful people, the physical interventions are just a small part. As well as focussing on miraculous technology, perhaps these new limbs can help with the social and psychological issues that amputees all face. And Susan has one last message that resonates something we can all agree on;
"We may be missing a limb, but we are still the same as all other individuals."
During this article I have made the personal choice to refer to those suffering with amputation, congential or otherwise, as amputees. The older term of 'handicapable' is equally applicable in context, but in my view does not represent the specific nature of the conditions listed. I am happy to be corrected and will use different and preferred terminology in the future.