Electrical Impedance Tool Wins $1 Million ALS Prize

The tool provides quantitative measurement of muscle deterioration

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Electrical Impedance Tool Wins $1 Million ALS Prize

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a devastating disease. It progressively shuts down patients' nervous systems until they can no longer speak or move. There is no cure, and most patients die within three to five years after diagnosis.

Five years ago, the nonprofit group Prize4Life offered $1 million to the first researcher who could develop an inexpensive method for quantifying ALS symptoms. While not a cure, such a tool would make clinical trials of potential ALS treatments much easier. Last week, the organization announced that it would be awarding the $1 million prize to Seward Rutkove, a neurologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Massachusetts, for his handheld device that assesses neuromuscular deterioration with a method called electrical impedance myography.

As Rutkove points out in a recent review paper, researchers have been using electricity to study nerves and muscles for more than a century. But most studies focused on the nervous system's ability to generate electricity. Impedance analysis--inferring tissue's structural properties based on how electrical current flows through it--was, by and large, relegated to the food and nutrition industries. Rutkove got into the field in 1999 after reading a paper by two physicists who used electrical impedance to study human skeletal muscles. Perhaps the approach could help quantify the damage caused by neuromuscular diseases, such as ALS, he thought.

Within a few years, Rutkove was collaborating with those physicists and had partnered with Joel Dawson, an electrical engineer at MIT, to create a handheld electrical impedance system for clinical use. The method turned out to be a great way to chronicle neuromuscular deterioration: decreases in fat and muscle mass have different effects on resistance and capacitance, creating a disease state-specific electrical signature.

"It's not like it's the fanciest technology," Rutkove told the New York Times, "but I truly believe it will help people." A clinical trial of a stem cell treatment for ALS is already using electrical impedance as an outcome measure, and more are sure to follow now that the technology has won the Prize4Life contest.

Image: The current version of Rutkove's electrical impedance myography system.
Image Credit: Convergence Medical Devices

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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