By Poornima Apte
Jim Ewing, a 55-year-old engineer from New Hampshire, suffered a traumatic rock climbing accident in late 2014. While most of Ewing’s broken bones healed over time, the talus in his left ankle gnawed at him mercilessly. “I started thinking that amputation might be my best option because there was so much damage in my foot,” Ewing says. Desperate for relief, he called his former roommate, Hugh Herr. As it happens, Herr, a bilateral below-knee amputee himself, is head of the biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab and a world leader in prosthesis research.
Ewing’s friend told him about a new procedure that would deliver not only a successful amputation but also a prosthesis that he could control with his brain. That new system is the brainchild of Tyler Clites, the 28-year-old who won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in 2018.
Clites’ goal is nothing short of audacious: He wants to build bionic prostheses and create a neural interface between robot and human so the two can work together. To do so will require an entirely new approach to surgical amputation, the first of its kind to target proprioception — a fancy word for our ability to sense where our bodies are in space. While traditional amputation disrupts proprioception, Clites’ approach preserves it.