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Harnessing the brain's power to improve prosthetic limbs

Fred Downs was 23 years old and a soldier in Vietnam in 1968 when a Bouncing Betty land mine took his left arm.

"Almost lost this [other] arm and almost lost my leg," Downs recalled.

Like many young, wounded men returning from the war, he didn't have many options when it came to addressing his injuries once he was home.

"The Army fit me with the — what I call — the hook, which is a plastic arm," Downs said. "That was the only thing available in those days."

Fred Downs uses the DEKA Arm, a prosthetic controlled wirelessly by sensors mounted on his shoes.
Brad Quick | CNBC
Fred Downs uses the DEKA Arm, a prosthetic controlled wirelessly by sensors mounted on his shoes.

He wore that style of prosthetic for 47 years. Then, in 2009, he was presented with another option: the DEKA arm. Built by DEKA Research and Development and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the new-wave prosthetic mounts sensors on the user's shoes to allow control of the arm.

"It's very strange," Downs said. "For the first time in 40-some years, I have the ability to use my left hand to grasp things."

DARPA is a branch of the Department of Defense. Its main focus is developing technologies to help the military or those returning from service. The DEKA arm is one of many projects it's working on to improve options for prosthetic limbs.

Others leverage our increasing understanding of the brain to envision direct control of a prosthetic limb. Jan Scheuermann is one of the first people to try it out, after a neurodegenerative disease called spinocerebellar degeneration left her unable to move her arms and legs.

Scheuermann entered a trial at the University of Pittsburgh and underwent surgery to have sensors installed in her brain. The goal: to control a prosthetic arm with her thoughts.

After some training, Scheuermann showed she could control the arm by just thinking about moving it, feeding herself for the first time in nearly a decade.

As for Downs, he became an expert at maneuvering the DEKA arm through a complicated tap dance that gives him nimble control.

"The ability to take care of yourself is so crucial," Downs said. "Combing your hair, brushing your teeth, getting dressed; all of those are what you need as a human being to have your dignity."