Let’s take some time to appreciate how our bodies work. Shake your head. Snap your fingers. Look around you. Those simple movements required the cooperation of billions of cells and took many years to develop. That’s why our bodies can be seen as well-oiled machines. But what happens when parts of our body stop working?
Many people have damaged body parts, or faulty “machinery.” For instance, in the US, there are approximately 6 million cases of paralysis and 1 million cases of spinal cord injury (“Paralysis Facts & Figures,” n.d.). Currently, there are about 2 million Americans living with limb loss (“Limb Loss Statistics,” n.d.) Additionally, 20.6 million American adults suffer from significant vision loss (“Facts and Figures on Adults with Vision Loss,” 2014). These are only a few of the physical conditions that plague patients.
Traditionally, many of these issues were untreatable, but today bionics, defined as the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms, bionics has finally allowed us to effectively treat these conditions (Fischman, 2010). There are many types of bionics but they all communicate with our nervous system. The nervous system, using a complex network of nerves, allows for movement and processing of information (“How does your nervous system work, n.d.). It does this using electrical currents and chemical messengers that flow through our nerves (n.d.). Previously, it was inconceivable to process these impulses but new technology has been able to mimic the electrical signals transmitted by nerves.
For instance, in 2015, research led by Richard Anderson, a professor of neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology, found that wiring a robotic arm to a participant’s posterior parietal cortex allowed the individual to control the prosthetic (Emspak, 2015). The parietal cortex is the part of the brain that forms the initial plans to make movements (2015). For example, when a person decides to grab a cup, the posterior parietal cortex first outlines the steps, then the motor cortex translates the plan into movement by sending signals to specific parts of the arm and hand. The researchers used signals from the posterior parietal cortex “to extract the intent of the subject,” and then “used smart robotics to work out the fine details” and translate them into movement (2015).
This same technique that involves wiring the brain to a prosthetic is very flexible and can be used all over the body. For example, Aiden Kenny, a boy born deaf, can hear thanks to electrodes inside his ear that process sounds picked up by a microphone and convert them into signals his auditory nerve can understand (Fischman, 2010). Similarly, Jo Ann Lewis, a blind woman, can see with the help of a tiny camera that communicates with her optic nerve (2010). Eric Schremp, a quadriplegic, can now move his fingers because of an electronic device under his skin that communicates with motor neurons (2010).
Bionics serve as powerful solutions to a variety of issues. This is the technology of the future, a technology that can make up for any biological faults we may come across. Although promising, it’s going to take a while for this new tech to take off; issues like cost and ethics are still being addressed. Since it’s a new field, bionics are currently very expensive, and only a few have been able to take advantage of their benefits. Development and funding in this field can lead to great advancements in science, meaning cyborgs and androids may not be science fiction for much longer.
By Kevin Mao
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