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Bionic People? Is Seventies Science Fiction Now a Reality?
I remember back in the seventies, TV programs like the Six Million Dollar Man, with Lee Majors and The Bionic Woman ,with Lindsay Wagner. Back in the seventies these shows were considered just science fiction, a way to entertain audiences with unique stories and visions of what could be the near future. In an article in National Geographic Magazine titled “Merging Man and Machine” these TV programs are just a step away from becoming reality. In the article, there are several case studies: of people who have missing limbs, a little boy born deaf, and a woman who suffered from a degenerate eye disease that rendered her blind. Through the use of bionics these people can walk, hear and even see.
The term for this modern day miracle is etymology. Etymology is defined as “from bi (as in life) + onics (as in electronics); the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms.” This means that electronic proteases devices have become so sophisticated that they are practically part of the person’s body.
The first example is a ten month old infant, who's name is Aiden Kenny. Aiden was born deaf and his parent had little hope of their son ever hearing. Through the miracle of etymology Aiden received two cochlear implants that bypass parts of his ear that do not work. These implants are only visible on an x-ray and they carry electronic signals to his auditory nerves. In Aiden a microchip picks up the sound and sends signals to the electrodes, which pass them directly to the auditory nerves. The results are astounding, only a month later, Aiden started to hear, and is able to say mama and dada. Hopefully, with the aid of a speech therapist, Aiden will pick up language quickly and catch up to his peers.
Jo Ann Lewis, a victim of a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa now has hope of seeing again. This eye disease destroys the light detecting cells in the eyes, called rods and cones, this in turn causes permanent blindness. This is what most would deem a hopeless situation. Thanks to Dr. Mark Humayun, an ophthalmologist at the University of Southern California, who also is employed with a company called Second Sight there was hope for Jo Ann. Dr. Humayun developed a system he calls Argus after the god from Greek mythology that had one hundred eyes.
Argus works in the following way: patients are given a pair of dark glasses with a tiny video camera mounted on them, along with a radio transmitter. Video signals are transmitted to a computer worn on a belt. These signals in turn are translated to electronic patterns understood by the ganglion cells and from there they are transmitted to a receiver behind the ear, from there they travel inside the eye by a wire to an array of sixteen electrodes gently attached to the retinal surface. Impulses trigger electrodes which in turn trigger the cells. The brain then takes over and this whole process allows a previously blind woman to see edges and coarse shapes and through some further innovations, she even sees the silhouettes of trees again.
Amanda Kitts, who lost her left arm in a car accident back in 2006, now has the hope of living a normal life, with a fully functional bionic arm that she operates through neurons in her brain. Kitts volunteered to test a revolutionary new prosthesis, an electronic arm that can be controlled by the brain. This is a revolutionary new technique called muscle reinnervation; this technique was developed by Dr. Todd Kuiken, a physician and biomedical engineer. Muscle reinnervation uses the nerves remaining after the amputation to control the artificial limb. Severed nerves are rerouted from their old damaged spots to other muscles that are better able to transmit the signals.
Muscle Reinnervation is a four step process. The first step is to salvage major nerves that once went all the way down the arm. These nerves begin in the patient’s brain, in the motor cortex. The motor cortex holds a rough map of the body. After the nerves have been salvaged and regrouped the patient starts to feel sensations in her arm after a couple of months. Then the next step is to fit the patient with her first bionic arm. The patient has to learn to control the arm using her mind. Once signals to the muscles create associations with a particular arm movement, the computer than allows the arm to identify the correct movement that correlates with the impulses from the brain. Soon she will even feel sensation in her arm, even though it’s bionic. This project is still very much in its developmental stages, so there is a ways to go before they develop an arm that can come close to the real thing.
Even though this promising branch of science and medicine, it is still in the developmental stages, it offers hope to people, who had little or no hope, as recently as only ten years ago. Through this new science many amputees from the Iraq war have been given new limbs that function very much like their original body parts. There is also new hope for quadriplegics.
Eric Schremp broke his neck back in 1992, causing him to be paralyzed. Thanks to the miracle of bionics Eric can grip a knife and fork. This is due to an implanted device developed by Hunter Peckham, a biomedical engineer at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Schremp’s implant works through eight micro thin electrodes that emit from Schremp’s chest under the skin of his right arm, ending at his finger muscles. When the muscles in Eric’s chest twitch it triggers a signal that is sent by radio transmitter to a small computer hanging from his wheelchair. The computer intercepts the signal and radios it back to the receiver implanted in his chest, the signal is then sent by wire down Eric’s arm to his hand. Thanks to this process, Eric is able to handle a fork and knife and eat independently.
There have been great stride made in the science of bionics. Despite these strides made by brilliant scientists and physicists, they still haven’t been able to match one’s natural body parts. As quoted in National Geographic “They can’t hold a candle to mother nature.” Then again, it’s better than having no hope at all, when the unthinkable happens and one is required to live without an arm, leg and even one’s sight. Thanks goodness for brilliant minds with loving hearts.