New Brunswick

Research scientist working to advance bionic prosthetics for amputees

Research scientist Levi Hargrove says it takes a little bit of medicine, engineering and therapy to rewire a human with a bionic prosthetic.

Former student returns to UNB to discuss work

Biomedical engineer Levi Hargrove of New Brunswick, left, watches a patient walking on stairs with his experimental bionic leg. (Brian Kersey/Associated Press)

Research scientist Levi Hargrove says it takes a little bit of medicine, engineering and therapy to rewire a human with a bionic prosthetic.

The New Brunswick native who grew up in Bath and studied at the University of New Brunswick has returned to the province to talk about his work in developing bionic prosthetics. He is the director of the Neural Engineering for Prosthetic and Orthotics Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

His lecture, Rewiring Humans: Improving Control of Bionic Limbs will be presented at the UNB Fredericton and Saint John campuses Nov. 8 and Nov. 9.

"We actually do a surgery to where you physically move nerves that were amputated and attach them onto different parts of the body. Nerves are kind of like the information highway, they send information out to your muscles and they send information to your brain to different sensory organs."

Hargrove said it's minor surgery to have a bionic prosthetic attached to your body, taking three to four hours and an overnight recovery in hospital.

More natural

The research scientist told Information Morning Fredericton the goal for improving bionic prosthetics is making it work more naturally for the person using it.

Hargrove used the analogy of talking to someone in Morse code and trying to interpret it rather than speak to someone face-to-face and understand what they are saying.

"We're really just trying to make it natural and more intuitive like speaking and listening," he said. "You make pulses of muscle contractions and those are sent and relayed to a prosthetic limb that usually only does one or two things at the moment and we're really trying to restore many, many different movements."

Hargrove said it could include different hand grasps and restore mobility to those who've lost their legs. He said the bionic prosthetic provides the root for the nerve to grow and attach to a muscle.

"After it grows into the muscle, it's happy, it doesn't know it's attached to a different muscle."

Long-term goals

Hargrove admits it's a long-term goal to have a prosthetic limb work like a real limb would but says it is something that will be worked on in the future.

"In the medium term we would want to allow someone to regain their independence, so be able to do movements like moving your elbow, wrist and hand kind of in a fluid way to do functional activities to feed yourself, dress yourself."

Hargrove said work to improve prosthetics for amputees is being well-funded as government and the military realize improvements need to be made.

Terry Seguin talks to a UNB alumnus who's gone on to become a leading expert in bionic prosthetics.

After spending 10 years studying electrical engineering at UNB and working with machines a lot, Hargrove said it was nice to work with people and interact with those he helps. 

"It's working with people who before receiving a prothesis they might have a hard job standing up or not have any independence so that's motivating as well."

Hargrove said UNB's Institute of Biomedical Engineering is one of the leaders in bionic prosthetics research.

With files from Information Morning Fredericton