We’ve seen several developments in prosthetic arms that move closer to full range of motion and comprehensive sense of touch. Upper limb management via a brain-to-computer interface is a crucial component to give amputees full control of fine motor movement with the prosthetic. In the past we’ve written about work with thought control for prosthetic arms at Radboud University Medical Center. We also covered the work of Cleveland Clinic researchers with neural interfaces that enable amputees to feel objects with a smart bionic arm.

San Francisco-based biotechnology research company Atom Limbs is carrying forward research and development that began more than 15 years ago at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU APL). The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded the Johns Hopkins group $120 million to create a robotic arm for military amputees. The result of the work, which involved hundreds of physicists, surgeons, roboticists, amputees, and more, according to Atom limbs, is the current version of the Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL). As noted in a disclaimer on the Atom Limb website, Atom Limbs doesn’t own the MPL. Atom Limbs does have an exclusive option agreement with the JHU APL and plans to negotiate a licensing agreement for the technology.

The MPL design includes the physical prosthetic along with a shirt-like wearable that includes a brain-to-computer interface (BCI). The BCI will not require implants in the brain, but will detect and transmit signals from the brain. According to Atom Limb, “Depending on your signal fidelity, we may suggest a minor outpatient functional enhancement surgery.” We don’t know, but perhaps the enhancement would be some form of sensor implant.

The MPL will include a cuff-like component of electromyographic (EMG) sensors that will receive the signals from the user’s brain. Called the “Atom Circle,” this component will transmit data wirelessly to the Atom Touch prosthetic where the data will result in movement. The company states that users will be able to move their wrist, elbow, and individual fingers proportionally and simultaneously, as naturally as with a biological arm. Touch sensors in the prosthetic will also relay information to the brain, enabling the wearer to sense touch.

Much of the information about the MPL is broad, although the website lists a number of studies about the various technologies employed by the project. If you’re interested in reading more about the project, this Overview report published by JHU APL is a good start. Atom Limbs currently expects to launch the Atom Arm in 2023 and is currently soliciting volunteers to preview the Atom Arm project. There’s also a parallel program the the Atom Leg. While this program is still an emerging technology, the potential for a non-invasive BCI that amputees can use control prosthetics with their minds is too important to ignore.