111 59 4 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

BOSTON – One by one survivors who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombings crossed the finish line in Saturday's tribute run. Heather Abbott on a running blade. Celeste Corcoran with two prosthetic legs. Adrianne Haslet-Davis with one prosthetic leg. Erika Brannock in a wheelchair.

A few miles away at the MIT Media Lab, a group of researchers are working to change that, to replace wheechairs and conventional prostheses, with bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs and the feel with synthetic skin.

"The technology is marching forward at such an accelerated pace that we can easily imagine many disabilities that exist today no longer being disabilities," said Hugh Herr, director of MIT's Biomechatronics group.

BOSTON: Athlete returns with new perspective

Herr, who lost both legs after a 1982 climbing accident, met Haslet-Davis, a professional ballroom dancer, at Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital after the bombings. For Herr, the meeting spurred the desire to build Haslet-Davis a bionic ankle that could restore her ability to dance.

During the next 200 days, Herr's research team did just that. To mimic the biomechanics of dancing, the research team worked with an able-bodied dancer to explore the movements of the waltz, cha- cha, and rumba.

"In this lab, we steal from nature," Herr said. "We model the body part that's missing and we model the muscles and how the muscles are controlled by the spinal cord and from that science we extract principles that dictate how the mechanics are designed."

Haslet-Davis put this technology on display in her first dance performance since the injury at the conclusion of a TED talk Herr gave last month. "It's amazing, seeing her go from talking about dancing as though it was something that would never happen again to this," said the project's lead researcher Elliott Rouse.

Approximately 900 persons with leg amputations have received a customized version of a bionic ankle developed by Herr's group. Half of those have gone to wounded U.S. soldiers, with the cost – which Herr didn't disclose – largely covered by the Veterans Administration, the Department of Defense, and some private insurers. Herr and other companies are working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to make advanced prostheses more broadly available to those in need.

How this impacts sports in years to come could be interesting, judging by the debate that ensued when double-amputee Oscar Pistorius was initially banned from competing against able-bodied runners. Herr was involved in the research conducted on the mechanics of Pistorius' running blades, concluding the blades did not give Pistorius a competitive advantage. This allowed Pistorius to become the first double-amputee to compete in an Olympic race.

Herr also has plans to work with Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy, who is currently competing on Dancing with the Stars. "I would love to design Amy Purdy an amazing snowboard," Herr said. "It would be fun."

Dreaming of a world without disabilities, Herr imagines those with bionic limbs going to a web page to download algorithms for tennis or ballet or whatever exercise they want. Or perhaps clicking on a movement app for a marathon.

"I often say I have a condition that my legs are amputated, but I'm not disabled because of technology," Herr said. "That's going to be true for persons with spinal cord lesions, strokes and blindness as well as bionic systems become more advanced."

PHOTOS: Boston Marathon tribute

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions
111 59 4 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/Qns9AK