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Louisiana Congressman-elect Luke Letlow dies from COVID-19

Luke Letlow, Louisiana’s incoming Republican member of the U.S. House, died Tuesday night from complications related to COVID-19 only days before he would have been sworn into office. He was 41.

Letlow spokesman Andrew Bautsch confirmed the congressman-elect’s death at Ochsner-LSU Health Shreveport.

“The family appreciates the numerous prayers and support over the past days but asks for privacy during this difficult and unexpected time,” Bautsch said in a statement. “A statement from the family along with funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time.”

Louisiana’s eight-member congressional delegation called Letlow’s death devastating.

“Luke had such a positive spirit, and a tremendously bright future ahead of him. He was looking forward to serving the people of Louisiana in Congress, and we were excited to welcome him to our delegation where he was ready to make an even greater impact on our state and our nation,” they said in a statement.

The state’s newest congressman, set to take office in January, was admitted to a Monroe hospital on Dec. 19 after testing positive for the coronavirus disease. He was later transferred to the Shreveport facility and placed in intensive care.

Dr. G.E. Ghali, of LSU Health Shreveport, told The Advocate that Letlow didn’t have any underlying health conditions that would have placed him at greater risk to COVID-19.

Letlow, from the small town of Start in Richland Parish, was elected in a December runoff election for the sprawling 5th District U.S. House seat representing central and northeastern regions of the state, including the cities of Monroe and Alexandria.

He was to fill the seat being vacated by his boss, Republican Ralph Abraham. Letlow had been Abraham’s chief of staff and ran with Abraham’s backing for the job.

Leaves wife, 2 children

Gov. John Bel Edwards urged people to pray for Letlow’s family.

“COVID-19 has taken Congressman-elect Letlow from us far too soon,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “I am heartbroken that he will not be able to serve our people as a U.S. representative, but I am even more devastated for his loving family.”

Letlow is survived by his wife, Julia Barnhill Letlow, and two children.

U.S. House leaders offered their condolences Tuesday night.

“May it be a comfort to Luke’s wife Julia and their children Jeremiah and Jacqueline that so many mourn their loss and are praying for them at this sad time,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said: “Our hearts break tonight as we process the news of Congressman-elect Luke Letlow’s passing.”

Before working for Abraham, Letlow had worked for former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Jindal’s one-time chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, described Letlow on Twitter as “a good man with a kind heart and a passion to serve. He loved Louisiana and his family. He was a brother and I’m heart broken he’s gone.”

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‘Luke Skywalker’ Robotic Prosthesis Allows Amputee to Feel Again

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One of the differences that has long separated the realm of science fiction and reality, at least where prosthetics and artificial human augmentation are concerned, is our ability to smoothly knit synthetic or cybernetic components into the human body. In Star Wars, Star Trek, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or games like Deus Ex, these are treated as solved problems to one extent or another. In real life, building artificial limbs with sophisticated gripping or balancing capabilities is still very much a work in progress. But a prosthetic arm we’ve covered before, now officially known as the Deka LUKE arm (and named after Luke Skywalker), has now gone a step further and partially restored an amputee’s ability to feel sensation again.

The paper abstract, in Science Robotics, states:

Electromyographic recordings from residual arm muscles were decoded to provide independent and proportional control of a six-DOF prosthetic hand and wrist—the DEKA LUKE arm. Activation of contact sensors on the prosthesis resulted in intraneural microstimulation of residual sensory nerve fibers through chronically implanted Utah Slanted Electrode Arrays, thereby evoking tactile percepts on the phantom hand. With sensory feedback enabled, the participant exhibited greater precision in grip force and was better able to handle fragile objects. With active exploration, the participant was also able to distinguish between small and large objects and between soft and hard ones. When the sensory feedback was biomimetic—designed to mimic natural sensory signals—the participant was able to identify the objects significantly faster than with the use of traditional encoding algorithms that depended on only the present stimulus intensity. Thus, artificial touch can be sculpted by patterning the sensory feedback, and biologically inspired patterns elicit more interpretable and useful percepts.

The Utah Slanted Electrode Array was developed for implantation in the peripheral nervous system. As the name implies, an array of 100 1.5mm long silicon microneedles projects outwards from a tiny substrate, with electrode lengths that range from 0.5mm to 1mm. The electrode array has been used along with a non-slanted version (the Utah Electrode Array) to study parallel information processing and how muscles are controlled.

The LUKE arm has been modified to relay information to the human brain, allowing an amputee to sense information about objects they are holding. Previous research has indicated that the ability to feel things is key to knowing how hard to grip them — remove it, and it’s much harder to avoid crushing objects.

“We changed the way we are sending that information to the brain so that it matches the human body. And by matching the human body, we were able to see improved benefits,” said Jacob George, study author and biomedical engineering doctoral student at the University of Utah. “We’re making more biologically realistic signals.”

Keven Walgamott. Image credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.

One of the amputees who received the arm, Keven Walgamott, was able to successfully remove grapes from their stems without crushing them, pick up an egg without crushing or cracking it, and even hold his wife’s hand. He reported similar sensation in his “fingers” to that of a human hand. “It almost put me to tears,” Walgamott said after using the LUKE Arm for the first time in 2017. “It was really amazing. I never thought I would be able to feel in that hand again.”

Making the arm work was a complex process. Research on helping amputees feel by connecting prosthetics to remaining nerves in the forearm has been underway for years. But actually transmitting sensation requires more than just hooking the hand up to a nerve that can be made to transmit a “move” command. In order to interface with nerves, the hand had to have sensors in it that could carry the data in a manner that nerves could understand as sensation to begin with. Transmitting nerve impulse data in what seems to be a spiking neuron model based on the description was key to making the arm actually work. (The site notes: “Upon first contact of an object, a burst of impulses runs up the nerves to the brain and then tapers off. Recreating this was a big step.”)

Researchers apparently modeled nerve transmission in primates to understand how to build an equivalent model in humans. The team is now working on a version of the Deka LUKE arm that can be fully mobile, rather than partially wired to a computer outside the body. The Utah Slanted Electrode Array is capable of sending signals that transmit more than just touch — pain and temperature can also be signaled as well, though this research focused on touch, not the other senses. In the future, the team wants to expand to address the needs of amputees above the elbow as well as its existing work with patients who lost limbs below the elbow. It’s hoped that patients could be fitted for a LUKE arm they could take home and use by 2020 or 2021. The arm has been in development for some 15 years.

Feature Image Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering.

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