Brad Farrell, PhD., assistant professor of physical therapy, researches ways to improve the function of hand prostheses. His work is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in a subcontract with the Georgia Institute of Technology. Farrell, who earned his PhD at Georgia Tech and worked there as a graduate research assistant in prosthetics and orthotics, aims improve the lives persons living in the United States with an amputation through the development of novel muscle actuated prostheses.
“Many prosthetic hands are cosmetic but not so functional,” says Farrell. “We’re trying to utilize muscles that remain after amputation. It’s like a brake lever on a bicycle, with long tendons to the hand and contracting muscles in the forearm. The muscles are still functioning and we’re trying to reconnect that function.”
The desire to do something new, figure out what works, what doesn’t work, and why, is what Farrell took with him from Georgia Tech and it drives him to this day.
“The research is interesting and frustrating, especially the hurdles for pre-clinical testing. But I am fueled by the desire to help people and make their lives better,” says Farrell.
Farrell currently works on prostheses in a rat model, but his goal is to change human lives.
“The possibility of improving people’s daily living—everything you do with your hands, from holding a pencil to drinking a cup of coffee. I want to help amputees have an improved quality of life,” says Farrell.
Farrell focuses on understanding how the central nervous system regulates sensorimotor function and on developing interventions to supplement lost function especially after musculoskeletal and neurological injury. Specifically, he is interested in osseointegrated prostheses to improve function after amputation and utilization of electrical stimulation to alter the state of spinal and supraspinal networks.
In addition to his research experience, Farrell was inspired to pursue prostheses from one of the Star Wars movies, during which Luke Skywalker loses his hand.
“That event in the movie drove my curiosity,” says Farrell. “I want to pursue how we can interface with the body and use what it already knows.”