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Can Medical Science Make Me Superhero?

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Can Medical Science Make Me Superhero?

What would life be like if you relied on someone to help you see, walk or get dressed? Every day, thousands of us achieve amazing feats of rehabilitation with the help of family, friends, health professionals and even animals. A bond is formed, where immense trust exists between the person in recovery and their care team. Now, imagine placing your trust — and to some extent, your life — in something artificial, like a computer or high-tech tool.

We know that computers crash and tools break and with todays reliance on technology maybe we know this too well. Despite the sense of unease you may feel about placing your life in these artificial hands, this is the reality for many amputees in Australia. Whether victims of trauma or infection, diabetes, vascular disease or cancer, people are fast becoming part of an exciting new era in health care involving bionic limb technology.

The Age of the Bionic Man

Until recently, the idea of a bionic man or women living among us was something only found in Hollywood blockbusters. Their reality seemed inconceivable to us. However, due to the scientific developments of bionic limbs it is very much a reality now. For example Rex is Britain’s first $1 million Bionic Man complete with artificial organs, synthetic blood and robot limbs, and he will leave you awestruck in terms of advancements in prosthetics.

In early human history, artificial limbs were served a more decorative purpose rather than a functional one. . They were designed to hide the embarrassment of trauma suffered during battle or accidents. People constructed prosthetic legs out of cumbersome materials like iron, wood and ceramics. It wasn’t until the American Civil War that major advances in prosthetic limbs emerged. These new prosthetics were much more mechanical, with hinges and locking joints much similar to natural joints. Modifications allowed easier attachment to the body. Despite continued construction with metals, they were designed with function in mind.

It is not just the functionality of bionic legs that has improved in leaps and bounds. Bionic arms continually impress, with some prototypes working to control upper limbs by thought alone.

After the horrific injuries suffered in two World Wars, funding programs were established to support advances in prosthetic limb technology, particularly for prosthetic legs. Amputees and artificial limbs were a common sight and it was evident that prosthetics needed to be comfortable. What was the point having an artificial limb if it was so painful you couldn’t wear it? This heralded the emergence of new generation plastics to enhance the experience and functionality of artificial legs. Additionally, advancements in computer technology meant the era of the bionic limb was a reality!

It is not just the functionality of bionic legs that has improved in leaps and bounds. Bionic arms continually impress, with some prototypes working to control upper limbs by thought alone. Other designs allow for multiple movements simultaneously, as opposed to single movement models. The recent breakthrough of the bionic hand incorporates tiny motors in every finger, allowing each one to move independently. These bionic fingers are operated via electrodes responding to messages from muscles and nerves that still function at the end of the amputated arm.

Hold the Future in Your Bionic Hands

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With all these advancements, the question is whether there are any areas of improvement left left for bionic limbs? The answer is yes, and the emerging science of robotics appears to hold the answers to where bionic limbs will go next. Traditionally, bionic limbs had inadequate movement at joints, resulting in jolting actions and a great deal of unsteadiness. Obviously, this creates apprehension for the people trusting these limbs to work for them. To overcome this, robotic technology seeks to replicate the natural human movement seen in healthy arms and legs, through the use of motorized parts.

These new motorized joints rely on sensors to detect movement and small motors to adjust the bionic limb in response to any instability. Robotics also incorporate technologies from different areas of engineering and computer science which allow bionic limbs to run more efficiently on a daily basis. Electric lithium batteries, electric motors based on magnets, gyroscopes and low-power computer chips are all utilized in bionic limbs. Many new components are so tiny the weight of the final product feels no heavier than a real human limb.

Challenges in Limb Research

Both scientists and patients agree there are many challenges to overcome in bionic limb technology. The biggest issue is discomfort. Without a proper fit these limbs won’t work. Putting something “dead” on a living person is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s possible that skin from the front of the limb may be stretched to the back of the limb during surgery, making it difficult for patients to locate exactly where their bionic limb may be giving them pain. The stump continually swells and shrinks as it heals.

Both scientists and patients agree there are many challenges to overcome in bionic limb technology. The biggest issue is discomfort. Without a proper fit these limbs won’t work.

Blisters are also a problem. Metal and plastic feel awful against the skin, especially if they are continually damp due to sweat. Bionic limbs do place strain on other major muscle groups in the body, which can create further musculoskeletal imbalances and pain. Prosthetic limbs are very expensive, with some costing more than $100,000. These challenges will need to be addressed to ensure that this technology is viable in the future.

The Implications of High-Tech Limbs

Some scientists working in the field predict that more invasive technologies may be in use in the future. Can you imagine having electrodes implanted directly into the nerves of your arms and legs, or even your brain? These electrodes aim to sense what you are thinking. Do you want your leg to move from stair climbing to walking down a hill? This electrode technology will aim to sync your thoughts with the action of your bionic limbs, without you slowing down or missing a step.

The idea that damaged limbs and defective organs can be replaced has gained traction in the past few years, owing its notoriety to a major project known as the “Bionic Man.” Based in the United States, the project has involved recruiting bionic limbs and organs from smaller projects, and has pieced together all current bionic organs and limbs together into a single, unified “superhuman.” Controlled by a computer as it does not have a brain or a nervous system, this “man” is based on bionic technology, with 50 percent of the body currently replicated by artificial organs and body parts. He even dons a very human-like face. Though each individual organ of the Bionic Man cannot function in sync with the others, the advancement is enough for society to seriously ponder what this means for human life in the future.

“Bionic Man” is controlled by a computer as it does not have a brain or a nervous system, this “man” is based on bionic technology, with 50 percent of the body currently replicated by artificial organs and body parts.

Will we still be human if we can be rebuilt? If bionic limbs became affordable for the general population in the future, we could theoretically replace our limbs with upgraded ones. In a survey of approximately a thousand people conducted by Budget Direct, only a quarter of those surveyed said “no way!” That means three-quarters would at least entertain the idea of upgrading their arms and legs.

Though they can live a highly functional lives with bionic limbs, many amputees agree that the stigma of an artificial body part is the biggest challenge to overcome. Negative attitudes make for high hurdles to clear. Science can provide a bionic body, but it is our mind and soul — our will, our resilience and our perseverance — that ultimately keep us moving.

Brumfiel, G. (2013). The Insane and Exciting Future of the Bionic Body. Available at:
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/the-insane-and-exciting-future-of-the-bionic-body-918868/

Douglas, A. (2005). The advancement of prostheses throughout history. Available at:
http://www.pelinks4u.org/articles/douglas1109.htm

Resnick, B. (2010). The Problem With Modern-Day, High-Tech Prosthetics. Available at:
http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a6302/high-tech-prosthetics-fitting/

Salisbury, D. (2013). Robotic advances promise artificial legs that emulate healthy limbs. Available at:
http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2013/11/robotic-legs-healthy-limbs/

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. National Institute of Biomedical Imaging & Bioengineering. (2013). Science Education: The Bionic Man. Available at: http://www.nibib.nih.gov/science-education/bionic-man

Survey Stats: Survey was conducted by Budget Direct in the month of April 2015 with a random selection of 1,000 people.

Annalies Corse

Annalies Corse

Annalies Corse is an Australian medical scientist, lecturer, naturopath and writer. Annalies has worked in many varied research settings including The Australian Institute of Sport, cancer research, paediatrics and genetics. Her love of nutrition and the medical sciences lead to further studies and lecturing for university students. Annalies is currently working on a masters degree at the University of Sydney, focusing on medical, health and scientific communications.