“The first time, to be honest, I started to cry”, said Gudmundur Olafsson as he tested out his brain-controlled bionic foot at the Reykjavik headquarters of Iceland-based prosthetics maker Ossur. Olafsson had his lower leg amputated as a result of a childhood accident and had been living with difficulty ever since. Years after the operation, he wore a Proprio Foot, essentially a wearable robot from Ossur, with algorithms and sensors that automatically adjust the foot’s angle while walking.

Fourteen months ago, however, Ossur upgraded his equipment into an artificial limb that can be controlled using only his thoughts.

The prosthetics are powered by implanted myoelectric sensor (IMES) technology which makes it possible to pick up impulses coming from the brain through sensors that are surgically inserted in the lower limb muscles. Since the command reaches the foot before the wearer’s residual muscles actually contract, there’s no unnatural lag between intention and action.

The surgery to implant the IMES is convenient and only takes about 15 minutes to place each sensor into muscle tissue through 1 cm long incisions. It is also innovative in that it does not require attachment to specific nerves or the harvest of such tissues from some other parts of the body. No integrated batteries are involved and thus there is no need to replace the sensors, unless they are damaged or have failed for some reason.

A major benefit of the new bionic limb is the way it redistributes the user’s weight especially when climbing up stairs or standing up from a chair without straining the non-prosthetic leg. Another is preventing muscle atrophy by compelling the user to actively use the muscles that were previously ignored due to difficulty in walking.

Eventually it can lead to improved muscle tone, stamina, and gait. This technology can potentially enhance the quality of life among amputees and people at risk for amputation such as those suffering from peripheral arterial disease, diabetes mellitus, or hypertension.

Authorities in the field of robotics and advanced prosthetics call this a very legitimate breakthrough in that this is the first to be able to demonstrate that the technology is relatively simple to fit, can work in real life and function for a prolonged period of time, rather than requiring complex surgery or others that have only been shown to work in the laboratory.

Ossur says it will be more of a tech “upgrade” for its current patients and anticipates that the system will reach the market within 3 to 5 years. The company is now preparing to start large-scale clinical trials with the new bionic limb technology.