Bionic implants : science fiction becoming science fact

When ace test pilot Steve Austin’s ship crashed, he was nearly dead. Deciding that “we have the technology to rebuild this man”, the government decides to rebuild Austin, augmenting him with cybernetic parts that gave him superhuman strength and speed. Austin becomes a secret operative, fighting injustice where it is found.

You might not be familiar with the plot of The Six Million Dollar Man, a popular TV series aired from 1974 to 1978, but the show was very influential in introducing the term “bionic implant” to the mainstream. Nevertheless, bionic implants had been around for quite some time.

In 1958, the artificial pacemaker became one of the first electronic devices to be implanted inside patients. A pacemaker uses low-energy electrical pulses to prompt the heart to beat at a normal rate. Between 1993 and 2009, 2.9 million patients received a permanent pacemaker in the United States.

In 1984, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first cochlear implant for use in adults and, in 1989, for use in children. The cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing. The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as of December 2012, approximately 324,000 people worldwide had received such implants.

In the last 25 years, we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about our biology, our brain, and the place of technology within it. The new generation of bionic implants would make the The Six Million Dollar Man writers feel vindicated. Take a look.

Bionic limbs

To get started, please spare 3 minutes of your time to watch this moving video. It showcases ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, performing again for the first time since the incident. She uses a latest-generation bionic leg customized to her body and dancing style.

In 2012, Oscar Pistorius made history by becoming the first amputee sprinter to compete at the regular Olympics, thanks to his carbon fiber running blades.

Another video shows a double amputee with two cutting-edge bionic arms under the direct control of his brain. The sight of the man fitted with the sophisticated modular prosthetic limbs illustrates how far our technology has come in the last few decades. Even bionic hands are getting really good at emulating real ones.

In this field, scientists and entrepreneurs currently are focusing on restoring freedom of movement for people with amputation by making the best and coolest bionic limbs.

Sooner than we expect, though, exponential progress in bionic limb technologies might create people with super strength. We’ll then witness a revolution where physical disabilities allow the creation of prostheses that add new capabilities to the human body.

Bionic heart

A synthetic replacement for the heart remains one of the long-sought holy grails of modern medicine. It is incredibly challenging to create a device that can withstand the harsh conditions of the body’s circulatory system and reliably pump 35 million times per year, as the heart does.

In the last years, though, many companies and universities got closer to replacing our second most important organ. In December 2013 the French company Carmat performed the world’s first total artificial heart implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought. Although the patient died soon thereafter, another one made history in 2015.

In March 2015, an American company announced BiVACOR, the world’s first truly bionic heart. The team has successfully implanted it in a sheep, and human trials are expected to begin in 2018. BiVACOR lasts ten years and it is smaller and more reliable than any artificial heart ever built. It could be an important step for our path into becoming cyborgs.

Bionic eye

Technology reached a point where smart contact lenses are being developed for a variety of uses. One model, created by Google and to be manufactured by Novartis, has the potential to help diabetics monitor their glucose levels.

Another, when equipped, might give one the power to zoom vision almost three times. Developed initially for the military, the lens can also help millions of people suffering from macular degeneration.

Currently, science is not only augmenting the eye functions but it is going down a path where it will eventually be able to replace our second-most-complex organ. There are now several devices in the market that can restore partial vision. Some, like the eSight Eyewear, a kind of a VR headset, helps the legally blind and the results are really moving.

Others, like the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, the world’s first approved device intended to restore some functional vision, can be tried by patients who suffer from certain types of blindness. Using the Argus II involves not only surgery, but also a post-operative programming and low-vision rehabilitation protocol. The results are encouraging.

The science and the research behind visual prosthesis are relatively new; the current technology seems rudimentary and the devices clunky. However, in the next 20 years, scientists believe advances in bionic implants will increasingly benefit people suffering from eye diseases. Theoretically, even people with no eyes would be able to see.

Brain implants

The brain controls our movements and our breathing, makes sense of the world, and stores the memories that help form our personalities. It is often referred by scientists as the most complex object in the universe.

The human brain boasts more than a hundred billion neurons. Each neuron may be connected to up to ten thousand other neurons, passing signals to each other via as many as a hundred trillion synaptic connections.

Figuring out how the brain works is the largest and most difficult scientific endeavor humanity has ever pursued, and our progress in this field has been astonishing. In the last fifteen years, for instance, we have learned more about the brain than we have in the rest of human history. This knowledge allowed the emergence of sci-fi-esque new technologies.

One such technology, available since the 1990s, is called deep brain stimulation. DBS is a neurosurgical procedure involving the implantation of a brain pacemaker, which sends electrical impulses, through implanted electrodes, to specific parts of the brain.

More than 100,000 people around the world have undergone DBS for the treatment of movement and mood disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, and major depression. It is an impressive technology. This remarkable video shows what happens when a patient turns off the remote-control-operated pacemaker.

In 2012, a quadriplegic woman had a microchip implanted in her brain’s motor cortex. The sensor could read her “thoughts” and translate them into machine language. Through this machine-brain interface, the woman was able to move a robotic arm to serve herself coffee for the first time since she became paralyzed. And there is more.

Dr. Theodore Berger, from the University of Southern California, has been developing a device that can be implanted into the brain to restore memory functions, modeling the complex neural activity that takes place in the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories.

The device — a microchip that encodes memories for storing elsewhere in the brain — has been tested using tissue from rats’ brains, and researchers are planning trials on live animals. They hope it will provide a way of restoring memory function in patients who have suffered damage to their hippocampus from a stroke, an accident, or from Alzheimer’s disease.

Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil predict we’ll have reverse engineered the brain by the 2030’s. Judging by the massive amount of research and money in this field, it could happen even sooner.

In 2003, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen poured in $100 million to found the Allen Institute for Brain Science. In 2013 the European Union launched a similar initiative with great fanfare.

In 2014, President Barack Obama announced the BRAIN initiative, a large-scale project with the goal of mapping the human brain. It was inspired by the human genome project and has a budget of $3 billion to be spent in 10 years.

The advancements in neural implants over the next decades will powerfully challenge our concept of humanity. Are we going to implant fake memories in our brains? Will we evolve to be more machine than biology? Will we be able to upload our conscience to the Internet and live forever?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but there is already a community of people pushing the boundaries of biohacking, which is the hacking of our own biology.

Cheap bionic implants are already sold online and the first primitive cyborgs are among us. In the view of many scientists, it is just a matter of time until the human race becomes more machine than biology. I concur.

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