FDA mulls ‘Avatar’ tech for evaluating prosthetics

Could the technology used to help actors portray monsters in films like “Avatar” and “The Hobbit” help the Food and Drug Administration, and manufacturers, better evaluate artificial limbs?

A group of FDA researchers say they’re working to find the answer. They’re integrating 3-D motion capture technology into a classic test that gages dexterity in the hopes they can measure what extra body movements prosthetics users must make to compensate for the limitations of their devices.

Eugene Civillico, a neuroscientist in FDA’s Functional Performance and Device Lab, said the research could eventually help manufacturers find ways to make better prosthetics — critical work as more troops return from conflicts abroad with missing limbs. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service this summer, there have been more than 1,600 major amputations (referring to the loss of a limb or a similar trauma) in the War on Terror since 9/11.

“It’s very, very important to be able to help these patient populations,” Civillico told FedScoop.

Clinicians have typically used the “box and blocks” test, which measures how quickly a test subject can move blocks from one bin to another, to help judge dexterity. But those results don’t always tell the whole story, said FDA research fellow Kimberly Kontson.

“There are some prosthetic users that have become quite proficient in using some of these simpler prosthetic devices, such as body-powered hooks,” Konston said. “They can actually perform this task just as well as somebody without a disability. But if you watch them do it, they’re going to be shrugging their shoulders and twisting their torsos and shifting their head to achieve this task.”

To take that into account, researchers are fitting test subjects with small reflective markers that allow a computer to track the subjects’ upper body movements in real time. To simulate restricted movement — like what a patient might experience while using a prosthetic — the team is binding the fingers or bracing the wrists of able-bodied test subjects.

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