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First-of-Its-Kind Study to Use Advanced MRI Techniques for Testing Brain’s Ability to Adapt to Bionic Limbs

By MedImaging International staff writers
Posted on 16 Mar 2022
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Image: New study to improve prosthetic mastery in children born without limbs (Photo courtesy of Limbitless Solutions)
Image: New study to improve prosthetic mastery in children born without limbs (Photo courtesy of Limbitless Solutions)

Prosthetics can be a supportive tool for children born with missing limb to perform everyday activities, although little is known about how the brain responds to the addition of an artificial limb. A new, first-of-its-kind clinical trial will use advanced functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine how the brain adapts to advanced, bionic arms in children born without a limb, with the ultimate goal of improving control of their prosthetic.

The four-month clinical trial will be a collaborative effort that will brings together expertise from pediatric research, neuroradiology, and bionics to examine if prosthetic developed by Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit, direct support organization at the University of Central Florida (Orlando, FL, USA), paired with its custom training video game, will impact the motor control center of the brain. Limbitless specializes in developing advanced, muscle-based biosensing technology, such as bionic limbs, to increase accessibility and empower children and adults in the limb-different community. The customized prosthetics they create are 3D printed and can be paired with a parent’s smart phone. The devices even charge like a cell phone, via USB type C. The exteriors of the devices are artistically designed and customized, with input from each participant. Existing muscles in the residual part of a limb are used to control their function, which is triggered by a person’s own muscle flex.

Limbitless has also created video games to train the children’s muscles in anticipation of receiving bionic arms. These video games will be leveraged in the trial to support training for the use of the prosthetic limb. In the clinical trial, the researchers will closely monitor any changes in the signals the brain sends to the muscle groups that direct the bionics’ movement by using advanced functional MRI techniques before and after prosthetic use and training. Additionally, researchers will use a method known as tractography - where MRI scans visualize the nerve pathways - to identify new or more robust pathways resulting from the training. The study is unique because it combines advanced imaging techniques with novel prosthetics and video-game-based training to evaluate motor cortex engagement.

“Limited research has been conducted on how the brain’s motor cortex structure changes from congenital limb loss and subsequent use of a prosthetic,” said Albert Manero, executive director and co-founder of Limbitless Solutions, who will lead the research study on the Limbitless side as the investigator along with other UCF staff and faculty. “It may provide new insight to how the brain’s motor cortex adapts to learning how to use our organic, or robotic, limbs.”

“This research will help us see how the brain responds to the child’s newly acquired ability to use a prosthetic hand,” said Dr. Chetan Shah, MD, chair of radiology at Nemours Children’s Health, Jacksonville, Florida, and based at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, who will lead the imaging work. “This is a novel way of using existing brain circuits to use an artificial limb, and most importantly, this is a life-changing device for a child both mentally and physically. We are extremely enthusiastic about this research.”

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University of Central Florida 

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