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VCU researchers studying how much focus is needed to walk with a prosthetic leg

Microprocessor-controlled knees might help.

Man walking with artificial leg Photo: Getty Images

By Malorie Burkett

Most people walk without ever thinking about putting one foot ahead of the other. But for people using an artificial leg, this isn’t always the case.

Now, thanks to a $1.97 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University will get one step closer to making life easier for amputees who use an artificial leg to get around.

Benjamin Darter, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU College of Health Professions’ Department of Physical Therapy, and colleagues from the University of Washington and the Hanger Institute for Clinical Research and Education will use the grant to study how much attention amputees currently give to their artificial leg while walking. They will then study how this need to pay attention changes with a microprocessor-controlled knee.

“The more a person has to concentrate and attend to the use of their prosthetic device, the less a person is able to pay attention to other things in their surroundings,” Darter said. “Being out in public and having to navigate uneven terrain, a busy environment or carrying objects while walking are examples of situations that can overload someone’s ability to process their movements and the environment around them. The result is a person might be at higher risk for tripping and falling.”

Over the past two decades, a lot of attention has been paid to amputation, especially within the military population, Darter said. He and his fellow researchers hope their work will help clinicians better understand the walking ability of their patients.

“Advancements in prosthetic design, such as microprocessor-controlled motion, allow, in theory, for the device to do more of the work for the person. For instance, users of microprocessor-controlled knees say they benefit from the device making it so they do not have to think about every step they take,” Darter said.

Participants are actively being sought for the study. Anyone who has had at least one amputation of a lower limb, has used a prosthetic device for at least six months and who is over age 18 may qualify. Contact the research team at amplab@vcu.edu or call (804) 628-3594 for more information.

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