Study Buddy (Challenger): Professor and surgeon use cutting-edge technology to make ‘robotic’ prosthetics for amputees

  • Study Buddy Challenger is for students who want to take their understanding to the next level with difficult vocabulary and questions that will test their inference skills
  • Check your reading comprehension using the questions below or in the linked Kahoot! game
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Jim Ewing has a special prosthetic for climbing. Photo: MIT

Content provided by British Council

Read the following text, and answer questions 1-9 below:

[1] Cyborgs entered popular culture in the 1980s. New interfaces between surgery, robotic engineering, and electrobiology are helping them become reality. A cyborg, in medical terms, is a person who has robotic parts, such as limbs, that can be controlled by the brain, and in some instances, “felt” in the same way that we feel our arms and legs.

[2] Much of the research is still experimental. But Hugh Herr, a professor of media arts and sciences from the Centre of Extreme Bionics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Matthew Carty, a surgeon in the division of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Brigham Young University in Boston, have jointly developed a prosthetic limb that can be controlled by the brain and the body, and can feel sensations the same as an organic limb. The technique the two developed in 2016 is known as the Ewing Amputation, and is named after their first patient, 52-year-old Jim Ewing. Ewing had a below-the-knee amputation after falling 15 metres in a climbing accident and was given a prosthetic limb, which Herr and Carty replaced with their newly designed version.

[3] A new film, Augmented, documents Herr’s journey – he received two prosthetic limbs when his feet were amputated after he got lost during a climbing expedition – and that of Ewing and Carty. It’s a fascinating story which shows how Herr, who originally had no desire to be a medical engineer, devoted his life to developing better prosthetic limbs when he became dissatisfied with the plaster-of-Paris limbs he was given after his own double amputation. Herr was not motivated wholly by a desire to help himself, although that was part of it. He had vowed to do something positive with his life because a young rescuer had died while searching for him.

[4] Herr and Carty aimed to restore the artificial limb wearer’s sense of proprioception – a person’s awareness of their body’s movement and location. It tells you how your joints are moving and how hard they are pushing. Without proprioception, it’s difficult to perform actions like walking without thinking about what you are doing. Amputees cannot experience proprioception in their prosthetic limbs, as the body cannot make the necessary connections between the muscles and brain.

[5] The Ewing Amputation preserves normal signalling between the muscles and the brain, so amputees feel like they are controlling their prosthetic limb naturally. Ewing said his body adapted quickly to the new prosthetic, and he used it without thinking about it. “My brain felt that my foot was still there, and used the muscles accordingly,” he said, noting that his body seemed to have developed a strong attachment to the prosthetic. “It’s brain control in the sense that your body is controlling the prosthetic limb in the same way you control your intact limbs,” he said.

[6] Ewing said the pain he used to feel in his stump – which was sometimes excruciating – subsided after he had the new prosthetic. Now he just gets some minor pain from wearing the device. He has no trouble walking up stairs without thinking about where his foot is – and has even resumed rock climbing.

Source: South China Morning Post, May 28


Play a Kahoot! game about this story as a class or with your friends by clicking on the link here.

Or play on your own below to test your understanding:

1. How would a doctor define a “cyborg”?
A. a creature that is half human and half robot
B. a person with machine parts that are controlled by the brain
C. a robot that is made to look like a human
D. a type of mechanical device powered by electrobiology

2. According to paragraph 2, why is Herr and Carty’s technique known as the “Ewing Amputation”?

3. What caused Ewing to lose part of his leg?

4. What prompted Herr to start working on the Ewing Amputation?

5. How did Herr feel about his first set of prosthetic limbs according to paragraph 3?
A. sympathetic
B. ambivalent
C. frustrated
D. concerned

6. According to paragraph 4, why do amputees find it difficult to walk with artificial limbs?

7. Which two parts of the body need to be linked up so that one can have a sense of proprioception?

8. Find a word in paragraph 6 that refers to “the part of something left after most of it has been removed”.

9. Decide if the following statements are True, False or Not Given in the text.
(i) The Ewing Amputation is a technique that maintains the messaging between an amputee’s muscles and brain.
(ii) Herr has had the Ewing Amputation performed on himself.
(iii) Traditional prosthetics are unable to restore an amputee’s sense of proprioception.
(iv) The procedure has allowed Ewing to resume all of his daily activities without any pain or difficulty.

Jim Ewing was able to resume rock climbing after recovering from his surgery. Photo: Brigham and Women’s Hospital


1. B

2. It is named after its first recipient/patient Jim Ewing.

3. He fell in a climbing accident and had to undergo a below-the-knee amputation.

4. He wanted to develop better prosthetic limbs for himself after his own double amputation, and he had vowed to do something positive with his life after a young rescuer died while searching for him when he was lost during a climbing expedition.

5. C

6. They have to actively think about their body’s movement and location.

7. the muscles and the brain

8. stump

9. (i) T; (ii) NG; (iii) T; (iv) F

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