For countless evenings during the 70s, Americans found themselves in the iron grip of one Steve Austin, a fictitious but very expensive bionic man. Barely alive due to a fiery crash, the astronaut’s life was not only saved, but radically improved.
But while the battered Austin had been made better, faster, and stronger using a wild collection of robotics parts, the truth is that his exploits were the stuff of pure science fiction.
That is, of course, until now. Recent developments in the field of neurotechnology – the real bionics – have given new hope to an untold number of people suffering from various debilities ranging from blindness to paralysis.
It’s all part a real-world trend that is beginning to take shape in numerous clinical trials around the world.
Based on 36 interviews with leading executives around the world, Deloitte, the business and accounting giant, recently even listed it among the top technology developments to watch in 2007.
Evolution’s evolution, Deloitte says, may have begun.
Recent developments within the industry seem to back up this claim.
For instance, as part of an ongoing set of clinical trials, sight has been restored to the blind using a set of "bionic" eyes that allowed its users to detect light, distinguish between objects, and perceive direction of motion. In the trial, results of which were released this week, six patients were able to see in ways that they hadn’t been able to before their surgeries.
The two-part device uses a tiny camera that captures images and transmits them to a grid of electrodes surgically implanted behind the retina.
The electrodes then stimulate the retinal nerve cells, enabling them to produce the electrical signals that the brain translates into sight. The development of the device offers new hope to the millions of people whose sight has been impaired by both retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration.
It is, says William Campbell, head of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital’s vitro retinal unit, "the beginning of a very exciting development in ophthalmology."
Other companies, meanwhile, are pursuing different methods with the same overall goal. At least six teams of scientists around the world have done or are planning to do tests on humans, and at least 23 devices are under development, the journal Science reported last year.
A trial being conducted at the University of Missouri is experimenting with a much simpler device, using blind cats as test subjects because of the similarities between a cat’s eye and its human counterpart.
The device, produced by Optobionics Corp. in Naperville, IL, is a simpler version that uses a microchip the size of a nail head. Imbedded in the microchip are thousands of tiny solar cells that turn light into electricity, the currency of sight.
Some thirty patients have had the device implanted in their retinas and six of those patients have been able to see the small letters on vision charts.
But it’s not just the blind who have had their hopes raised by the advances in neurotechnology. Paraplegics and amputees also stand to benefit from new technologies reminiscent of the bionic man.
In fact, within the next five years researchers are aiming to restore the natural movement of arms and legs to those who have been paralyzed.
Using an electronic brain implant attached to a system of muscle stimulators, researchers hope to enable limbs to move using nothing but the thoughts of patients.
The work is a follow-on to recent experiments performed on a 25 year old parapalegic that allowed him to open email, control a TV and move objects with his robotic arm, all using the electrical impulses generated by his thoughts.
Signals from the implant are decoded by a computer, allowing them to be translated into movement commands.
"The results," says Professor John Donoghue, who led the research, "hold promise to one day be able to activate limb muscles with these brain signals, effectively restoring brain-to-muscle control via the physical nervous system."
During a recent demonstration of the new technology, Donoghue’s group showed off their latest success. Jennifer French, a quadriplegic from Florida, rose from her wheelchair and was able to walk using the system.
"My first stand was a wonderful moment," she said. "I was able to hug my husband and my parents properly."
These radical new developments have given Jennifer – and countless others like her whose lives have been tragically altered by disease and accident – new reasons to look forward to a better life. And while they may never be able to run 60 miles per hour like their fictitious forerunner, these technological advances offer them real hope of at least regaining some of their former functions.
We really do have the technology now. It may be in its infancy, but like so many other new developments it promises to grow over time. Rebuilding the human machine is not as farfetched as it used be.
Just don’t expect those cool sound effects to come along with it.
Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,
Steve Christ, Editor