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'Bionic' ankles change amputees' lives

At one time, losing a lower extremity meant that you would need assistance in order to walk for the rest of your life, severely limiting your mobility and options in the coming years. Now with new technological advances, better prosthetics are being developed in high-tech laboratories. These can benefit people who receive Social Security Disability because of lower-limb amputations.

The new limbs, called "bionic" by some, combine a complex system of sensors, gyroscopes and processors to respond organically to patients' movements. When a person puts more pressure on the leg, for example, it pushes back.

This is a huge development over the outdated prosthetic limbs, most of which were simply a decorative spring. Those devices were bulky, difficult to use, and severely limiting for most amputees. With the new prostheses, though, amputees say they often forget that they even lost a limb.

The technological advances are attributable to an intrepid MIT researcher, who has been developing the high-tech limbs for the past two decades, after he lost his legs during a tragic mountain climbing accident. The man's company, known as iWalk, employs 60 people and is still in hiring mode. Early funding for his project, known as BiOM, largely came from the U.S. military. Soldiers coming back from wartime environments have benefited greatly from the latest advances.

One man who uses the bionic ankle said that he was able to return to work as a garbage collector thanks to the device. He had been run over by a garbage truck, which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. The man is back on his normal route now. He says he enjoys his job because he can be active and outdoors, and now he can be back on both of his feet.

Although the prosthetics are not widely available right now, the product's developers anticipate a growing market for the devices, and they say they will ramp up production as they hire more workers.

Source: CBS News, "Bionic men: Amputees say next-generation prosthetics respond like real thing," Wyatt Andrews, June 11, 2012

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