Local groundbreaking research includes artificial limbs

Scientists in greater Washington are defining what it means to connect man and machine, and their technologies are changing the lives of people with physical disabilities across the United States, says Michael McLoughlin, Chief Engineer of Research and Exploratory Development at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL).

As an entrepreneurial scientist, McLoughlin has worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the last eight years in an effort to develop brain-computer interfaces for controlling advanced prosthetic limbs.

McLoughlin says the main focus of their research has been figuring out “how to make that connection between the brain and the machine in a way that you can control, very much like you do your natural [limbs].”

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The technology uses signals from the brain, either through tapping into the brain itself or through residual nerves in the given limb.

McLoughlin says that the technology developed so far has been life-changing for individuals with physical disabilities who have been able to test it. Having the opportunity to see someone get back some sort of mobility for a moment has had a large impact on McLoughlin.

“It’s a really powerful thing,” says McLoughlin. “That’s really the story behind all this. It’s really that human connection.”

Brain-computer interface technology continues to be improved upon but still involves a fairly invasive procedure.

“It actually requires surgery and the implantation of electrodes,” McLoughlin told What’s Working in Washington.

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McLoughlin says that to scale the project and move it into the daily lives of people with disabilities, he and his team aim to take it out of the lab.

More people are becoming interested in investing in brain-computer interface technology.

“Elon Musk has jumped into it, and Bryan Johnson, and Facebook is now making an entry into this because they’re starting to see the commercial potential for this,” says McLoughlin.

“DARPA started investing in this in the late 1990s. We’re only beginning to see the fruits of that investment now.”

Financial prospects aside, the technology is groundbreaking for physically disabled individuals —many of whom donate their time and effort to test and work with the technology.

“It’s an incredible group of people we work with,” says McLoughlin.

“They really look at themselves as pioneers. They know that they’re doing this and they might not personally benefit from it, but they’re hoping that down the road others will.”

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