Category Archives: cybernetics

The Pentagon’s Bionic Arm

When Americans are wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq, no expense is spared to save their lives. But once they’re home, if they have suffered an amputation of their arm, they usually end up wearing an artificial limb that hasn’t changed much since World War II.

In all the wonders of modern medicine, building a robotic arm with a fully functioning hand has not been remotely possible.

But as 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley reports, that is starting to change. One remarkable leap in technology is called the DEKA arm and it’s just one of the breakthroughs in a $100 million Pentagon program called “Revolutionizing Prosthetics.”

Fred Downs has been wearing the standard prosthetic arm since 1968, after he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam.

“It’s a basic hook. And I can rotate the hook like this and lock it,” Downs told Pelley, demonstrating the limited movement ability of his prosthetic arm. “In those days they didn’t have a lot of sophistication about it. They fit you and say, ‘This is your arm, this is your leg.’ And it was the best technology in those days and you just had to make yourself learn how to use it and I did.”

Today, Downs is the head of prosthetics for the Veterans Health Administration. He told Pelley the technology used for his arm was developed during the World War II era.

“There’s a hook, something out of Peter Pan. And that’s just unacceptable,” Dr. Geoffrey Ling, an Army colonel and neurologist who’s leading the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, told Pelley

Col. Ling is a physician with big dreams and little patience, especially when touring Walter Reed Army Medical Center and meeting the troops he’s working for. “We have a saying in the military, ‘Leave no one behind.’ And we are very serious about that. And that doesn’t mean just on the battlefield, but also back at home,” he said.

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Bionic eye gives blind man sight

A man who lost his sight 30 years ago says he can now see flashes of light after being fitted with a bionic eye.

Ron, 73, had the experimental surgery seven months ago at London’s Moorfield’s eye hospital.

He says he can now follow white lines on the road, and even sort socks, using the bionic eye, known as Argus II.

It uses a camera and video processor mounted on sunglasses to send captured images wirelessly to a tiny receiver on the outside of the eye.

In turn, the receiver passes on the data via a tiny cable to an array of electrodes which sit on the retina – the layer of specialised cells that normally respond to light found at the back of the eye.

When these electrodes are stimulated they send messages along the optic nerve to the brain, which is able to perceive patterns of light and dark spots corresponding to which electrodes have been stimulated.

The hope is that patients will learn to interpret the visual patterns produced into meaningful images.

The bionic eye has been developed by US company Second Sight. So far 18 patients across the world, including three at Moorfields, have been fitted with the device.

It is designed to help people, like Ron, who have been made blind through retinitis pigmentosa, a group of inherited eye diseases that cause degeneration of the retina.

The disease progresses over a number of years, normally after people have been diagnosed when they are children.

It is estimated between 20,000 to 25,000 are affected in the UK.

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Computer circuit built from brain cells

For all its sophistication and power, your brain is built from unreliable components – one neuron can successfully provoke a signal in another only 40% of the time.

This lack of efficiency frustrates neuroengineers trying to build networks of brain cells to interface with electronics or repair damaged nervous systems.

Our brains combine neurons into heavily connected groups to unite their 40% reliability into a much more reliable whole.

Now human engineers working with neurons in the lab have achieved the same trick: building reliable digital logic gates that perform like those inside electronics.

Elisha Moses at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his students Ofer Feinerman and Assaf Rotem have developed a way to control the growth pattern of neurons to build reliable circuits that use neurons rather than wires.

The starting point is a glass plate coated with cell-repellent material. The desired circuit pattern is scratched into this coating and then coated with a cell-friendly adhesive. Unable to gain purchase on most of the plate, the cells are forced to grow in the scratched areas.

The scratched paths are thin enough to force the neurons to grow along them in one direction only, forming straight wire-like connections around the circuit.

Using this method the researchers built a device that acts like an AND logic gate, producing an output only when it receives two inputs.

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Scientists create organic wires for use inside the human body

Research chemists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) have developed a water-soluble, organic, self-assembling electronic wire suitable for use inside the human body. Derived from carbon materials, the lightweight, flexible wires can power pacemakers, reconnect damaged nerve tissues, while also interacting with real electronic device that could augment or stimulate organic function. But do not worry, for this is only step one of the long process of turning us all into Borg-like drones.

The self-assembly process produces wires which are notably thinner than a human hair. They can be manufactured so small, in fact, that they could interact with individual cells. And therein lies significant potential for paralytics.

Researchers believe a procedure could eventually be developed whereby the severed portions of nerve fibers are reconnected with these new organic wires. Such patients could theoretically regain at least some of their former mobility, if not all of it, once the science is perfected and applied.

In fact, John D. Tovar, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry at Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, spoke of this very possibility. He said, “Can we use these materials to guide electrical current at the nanoscale? Can we use them to regulate cell-to-cell communication as a prelude to re-engineering neural networks or damaged spinal cords? These are the kinds of questions we are looking forward to being able to address and answer in the coming years.”

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Replacement Arm, As Good As New

Thought-controlled robotic limbs were only the beginning.

Scientists have had a string of remarkable successes lately, taking signals from the brains of monkeys and men, and using them to move mechanical arms.

Darpa, the Pentagon’s blue-sky research division, now wants to ratchet that work up about ten notches, by developing a “neurally controlled artificial limb that will restore full motor and sensory capability to upper extremity amputee patients. This revolutionary prosthesis will be controlled, feel, look and perform like the native limb.”

So, basically, what Luke Skywalker gets in Empire Strikes Back, after Darth chops off his hand. Except, researchers won’t have a long, long time to get this limb ready. Darpa wants the robo-arm stat — in four years or less.

The limb would have to be wired directly into the peripheral nervous system, instead of the brain-controlled arms being demonstrated today, Darpa tells researchers interested in working on this “Revolutionizing Prosthetics” project. Under agency guidelines, the arm will need enough finesse to pick up a raisin or to write in longhand. It needs to be sensitive enough for the wearer to handle day-to-day tasks in the dark. And the limb will have to be strong enough to lift 60 pounds at a time.

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Paws for thought: Pet dog fitted with £10,000 bionic leg

A beloved pet bulldog has been fitted with a £10,000 bionic leg, which will help advance prosthetic techniques used to help bombing victims.

Coal, an eight-and-a-half year old hound had his left paw amputated because of cancer last year. He faced being put down because his other legs would be too weak to carry him.

But his determined owner Reg Walker, shelled out thousands of pounds to fit him with a sophisticated bionic leg, which was designed to be compatible with Coal’s own tissue.

The titanium alloy used mimics animal hide, allowing the skin and the bone from above to seal the metal implant below without it being rejected by the body.

It is only the second time such an operation had been performed on an animal, using a technique performed on a survivor of the London 7/7 bombings.

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Bionic ‘super lenses’ that correct long AND short-sightedness developed

Bionic implants that promise to give 45-year-olds the vision of someone 20 years younger could be available in just five years.

The ‘super lenses’ will correct both long and short-sightedness, allowing patients to throw away their glasses for good.

What is more, those who undergo the half-hour operation will not develop cataracts in old age, the British Association’s Festival of Science heard.

Professor James Wolffsohn said: ‘Everyone over 45 would benefit because it means they will be able to see distance and near absolutely naturally.

‘It is the true definition of a bionic eye. You are replacing something that has aged in the eye with a technological structure.’

The concept is based on existing technology – the tiny plastic lenses that have been implanted into the eye after cataract surgery for decades.

These are stiff, however, and while the operation makes vision clearer, it does nothing to treat short or long-sightedness.

More flexible lenses called accommodating intraocular lenses have recently hit the market but they, like laser surgery, only treat either long or short sight.

Scientists are now trying to create extra-flexible ‘super lenses’ which could be squeezed by the eye’s muscles into the shapes needed to focus on both near and distant objects – and all points in between.

They would be inserted into the eye in a simple operation that replaces the existing lens.

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Nerve Surgery Leaves Woman With Feeling in an Arm That Isn’t There

Claudia Mitchell may look like your average 20-something college student. She is anything but.

As a result of an experimental surgery, Mitchell has become the first real “Bionic Woman”: part human, part computer.

Mitchell’s bionic life began in 2004 with a ride on a friend’s motorcycle. The bike suddenly spun out of control, and Mitchell’s left arm was severed by a highway divider. After her doctor’s attempts to reattach the arm proved unsuccessful, she was outfitted with a standard prosthetic arm.

Mitchell thought that her new prosthesis would make her life return to normal. But it didn’t work. Her amputation was almost at her shoulder, which made the prosthetic arm all but impossible for her to control.

“It just sat on the shelf. It didn’t do anything,” Mitchell said.

She grew depressed, thinking she would have to spend the rest of her life with one arm, unable to perform even the most basic tasks. What saved her was a tiny article about an experimental nerve surgery.

The “targeted reinnervation” surgery was developed by Dr. Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. It was a radical idea: a robotic arm controlled not by a patient’s stump or shoulder, but by a patient’s thoughts.

Mitchell, a U.S. Marine, was ready to try anything to have a second functioning arm. She volunteered for the surgery.

During the six-hour procedure in 2006, doctors took the severed and dormant nerves in Mitchell’s shoulder, nerves that are used to control the movement of her arm, and put them under the muscle in her chest.

They wanted the nerves to reawaken and work her chest muscle. The doctors eventually used the electrical nerve signals from that chest muscle to power a new bionic arm.

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Growing Neural Implants

Conductive polymer coatings that weave their way into implanted tissue might one day improve the performance of medical implants, such as cochlear implants and brain stimulators used to treat Parkinson’s disease. In early studies, neural interfaces coated with an electrically conductive polymer outperformed conventional metal counterparts. Scientists at the University of Michigan hope that the material’s novel properties will help lessen the tissue damage caused by medical implants and boost long-term function.

Use of devices that are surgically implanted into the brain or other parts of the nervous system is growing rapidly. Cochlear implants, which help deaf people hear, and deep brain stimulation, which relieves symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, for example, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Both work by stimulating nerve cells via an implanted electrode. Devices that record and translate neural activity are also under development for people with severe paralysis.

But as use of neural implants grows, so does concern over the damage that those devices can impose on neural tissue. Insertion of the rigid metal electrode into soft tissue triggers a cascade of inflammatory signals, damaging or killing neurons and triggering a scar to form around the metal. “We hope to come up with a way to communicate across the scar layer and send information to and from the device in a way that is as friendly as possible,” says David Martin, a materials scientists at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who is leading the research into the polymer coatings.

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Bionic eye heralds cyborg revolution

An electronic eye that works like the real thing foreshadows the development of a new generation of bionic eyes and other “cyborg” technology seen in the film “Terminator” and other Hollywood sci-fi movies.

The electronic eye uses a curved detection surface like a human eye, made of “stretchable electronics.”

The first of its kind, the bionic eye produces exceptional images with lower distortion and with a broader field of view than possible with conventional flat camera microchips.

However, the underlying approach to producing flexible electronic surfaces of silicon chip sensors could find uses in moulding chips to the human body and ‘smart’ prosthetics, leading to new opportunities for doctors to boost the body with electronics.

Conventional imaging technologies have been developed for use in rigid semiconductor materials, glass plates and plastic sheets, all of which are flat in nature.

The new technique creates an array of silicon detectors and electronics in a stretchable, interconnected mesh that allows flat layouts to be transformed into curved shapes.

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