Imagine yourself as a young soldier. Stirred by a sense of duty you answered the call and became part of our nation’s military. Imagine that you are a young athlete at the top of his or her game getting ready to try for a spot on a professional team. Imagine you are a concert pianist or a computer programmer or a writer or any number of walks of life.
Then suddenly the unimaginable happens, a mine goes off, a car crash, a motorcycle accident, a hiking accident, a fire, and when that moment is over you are without a hand, or a leg, an arm, or even perhaps an eye. You may feel your life has come to an end. Your ability to continue to live your life as you wish has been made difficult or perhaps even impossible.
The old mantra from the TV show The $6 Million Dollar Man, “WE can rebuild him, better, stronger, faster” is rapidly becoming true. The crippled walk, the blind see, and the deaf hear. These miracles are not the result of divine or mystical influences but advances in technology that promise to allow amputees and severely injured or maimed persons to recover a great deal of functionality , perhaps complete or better functionality in the near future.
Bionics, a word that merges biology with electronics, means replacing or enhancing anatomical structures or physiological processes with electronic or mechanical components. Unlike prostheses, the bionic implant actually mimics the original function, sometimes surpassing the power of the original organ or other body part. Bionics takes place at the interface between bioengineering and anatomy (BJS 2006).
This technology is improving the life of volunteers and many of the devices developed are nearly ready for general use. The first man to use a bionic prosthesis, Jesse Sullivan, was a double amputee. “Like most amputees, Sullivan was fitted with a traditional artificial prosthesis, relying on chains and buttons to move his arm. But then doctors at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago offered a “bionic” arm for his other lost limb, putting him at the forefront of biomechanical technology.
((Gajilan, 2003) “The difference? Sullivan’s prosthesis is a myoelectric device. Instead of utilizing body movement, cables and chains, it is controlled by electric impulses from the amputee’s nerves and muscles. These impulses are picked up and amplified by sensors placed on the residual limb and passed to microprocessors controlling the motors in the prosthesis (Dupes, 2004). This allows a more natural movement and use of the limb according to Dr. Kuiken, one of the researchers at RIC. To make this work for Sullivan, he underwent a surgical procedure called ‘targeted muscle reinnervation’.
Nerves located on his shoulders which used to control his arms and hands were rerouted to muscles in his chest. The result allows him to simply think of manipulating his arms as he always did. Sullivan isn’t alone; the first woman to receive this sort of operation was also a success. A side effect of the use of these nerves is when the amputee is touched on the site of the muscular innervation it feels as if they are being touched on their hands (Rehabilitation).
Upper Limb amputees are not the only people benefiting from advances in technology. Similarly to upper-body prostheses the problem with traditional devices is the wearer does all the work. Walking uphill or on uneven terrain was especially troublesome.
Another problem is that the human body changes volume throughout the day from fluid intake, exertion and other factors. This is not normally taken into account and can cause bruising to occur. (BJS 2006 & DUPES 2004) Today however, with micro-electronics and AI new products are being developed for intelligent sockets to take this into account and adjust accordingly. Already on the market is a product by Victor called the Power Knee which controls the artificial limb by tracking the movements of the sound limb and allowing walking, uphill walking and stair-climbing (“Bionic Leg”).
Sensor technologies are advancing to the point where we can begin to replace eyes and ears with machines. Cochlear Implants have been on the market for a few years now and allow damaged ears to be bypassed and allow a deaf person to understand sounds and have a telephone conversation, but does “restore normal hearing. Instead, it can give a deaf person a useful representation of sounds in the environment and help him or her to understand speech (“Cochlear” 2006).” Similarly, though not yet on the market eye replacements wont’ give you eagle vision…yet.
First generation of the system is designed for visual acuity of 20/400, the second for 20/200, and the ultimate target is 20/80 vision. For humans who have lost vision through retinitis pigmentosa, age-related macular degeneration and other diseases that destroy the body’s own photoreceptors, 20/80 vision would mean being able to recognize faces and read large print type (BJS 2006).
With advances in computer technology and electronics taking place so rapidly today it would not be surprising if the electronic eye begins to approach or exceed normal visual acuity.
Sensor technology has also brought great advancements towards the duplication of the agility of the human hand. Complex activities such as typing and playing some slow pieces on the piano have already been demonstrated using the Dextra hand.
Like RIC’s Bionic arm it too utilizes existing nerve and musculature for control. “Dextra consists of a standard plastic socket and silicone sensor sleeve that encases an amputee’s limb below the elbow. After a brief training period, operating the fingers is biomimetic, that is, it is done by normal volitional thinking, as if the user were commanding his natural fingers. (BJS 2006)”
Together, all of these advances mean that it is possible to regain nearly all lost function due to injury or degenerative disease. Today these devices are primarily in research stages and are prohibitively expensive. Grants partially offset this by making the technology available to some in exchange for the data provided by their use.
Further research should be funded to accelerate the commercialization of these devices, special incentives to insurance companies made to support medical needs, and government subsidy made available to further reduce cost for the individual. There is hope for amputees across the world, they can be rebuilt, one day not just ‘good as new’, but “better, stronger, faster” as well.
“Bionic Leg—The Power Knee BioTronix Division” (nd) Retrieved January 27, 2007, from Web site: http://www.victhom.com/en/realization-bionic-leg-the-power-knee-1.htm
BJS (2006, Apr 04), Bionic man becoming a reality. Science Blog. Retrieved Jan 27,2007, from file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Administrator/Application%20Data/Mozilla/Firefox/Profiles/thiqpr06.default/ScrapBook/data/20070127130406/index.html
“Cochlear Implants” (2006, Oct 05 ) Retrieved January 27, 2007, from National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders Web site: http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/hearing/coch.htm
Dupes, Bill (May/June 2004). The Body Electric:Recent Developments in Bionic Technology. inMotion, 14, Retrieved January 27,2007, from http://www.amputee-coalition.org/inmotion/may_jun_04/body_electric.html
Gajilan , Chris (2003,Sept 23). Brain waves drive man’s bionic arm. Retrieved January 27, 2007, from CNN.Com/Health Web site: http://www.cnn.com/2003/HEALTH/09/25/bionic.arm/
Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago Unveils World’s First “Bionic Woman” ( nd.) Retrieved January 27, 2007, from Victholm Web site: http://www.ric.org/bionic/bionicwoman.php