22 March 2012 22:14 | By Hugh Wilson, Contributor, MSN Him

Can we create a bionic man?

The science of bionics offers the intriguing possibility of curing the sick and disabled, and even creating fitter, stronger, faster super-humans.


South African sprint runner Oscar Pistorius (© Petros Karadjias-Associated Press)

Would you consider cutting off your own appendage? After a car crash 12 years ago Nicola Wilding, 35, lost all use of her right hand. According to reports this week, she is now hoping to have the hand removed completely and replaced with a bionic prosthesis.

The bionic hand would move, grip and even accomplish intricate tasks like opening a bottle and tying a shoelace, all controlled by electrical impulses from Nicola's own brain.

Which just shows how far bionics have come in the last few years. So how many other body parts can we now replace with complex bionic or robotic components? Or to put it another way, how far are we away from making a real Bionic Man?

Bionic and artificial eyes

In the Six Million Dollar Man (a 1970s TV series, for those who don't know), the super-enhanced hero famously had an artificial eye that could see for miles. We're not there yet, but clinical trials in Germany and the UK on an artificial eye suggest that in the future we could be routinely restoring sight to the blind.

The artificial eye is, in effect, a light-sensitive chip implanted behind the retina, which converts light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain for interpretation.

So far, the artificial eye has successfully restored some sight to several patients who were completely blind. They could read the time and make out basic shapes. What they see is all pretty vague and grainy at the moment, but scientists are already working on a more refined version.

And intriguingly, there are also ways to enhance normal sight. Artificial lenses with microscopic circuits that include a zoom function are already in development. It may soon be possible to project maps, directions and other information onto a lens-like display that doesn't interfere with normal vision.

Terminator movie artificial eye (© Kevin Kolczynski-Associated Press)

Artificial eyes reached popular imagination in the Terminator films, but they're increasingly possible

Artificial hearts

Implanted pumps have been used for years to keep patients alive while they wait for heart transplants, but the longest anyone has survived on one is three years.

But one French company has produced a fully functioning heart that could replace the organ altogether. It works just like a human heart, drawing in blood and pumping it into arteries that transport it around the body. Matthew Green was the first UK patient to go home with a Total Artificial Heart after an operation at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire at the end of 2011. It cost £100,000.

And if you think about it, a perfect artificial heart opens up other possibilities. With the end of heart disease, how long could people live? And could a mechanical heart lead to significant athletic advances?

Artificial heart (© Adam Hunger-Associated Press)

These days artificial hearts are a reality, posing the possibility of extending human life by years

Bionic arms

Bionic arms are already available that allow users to perform intricate tasks like picking up a grape and tying a shoelace, but they require training. Users tense different muscles in the upper arm to control the movements of the prosthetic forearm and hand.

But advances already in the pipeline could make this seem like quite a crude control system. Researchers are working on limbs that can pick up the electrical signals sent by the brain when it thinks about picking something up or touching something. In effect, the prosthetic limb would be controlled by the brain in the way a natural limb is.

One difference, of course, is that, theoretically, an artificial limb could be made stronger than a normal one, leading to the possibility of human enhancement - rather than just human repair - through robotics.

Artificial legs

It's not that long ago that people who lost a leg were given a wooden replacement and a walking stick. Today they may be given a Genium, an artificial leg that boasts seven sensors, an on-board computer, a mobile motorised knee joint and a series of hydraulic valves. The leg responds differently to walking backwards, walking up stairs and walking at faster or slower speeds. Users can climb ladders, ride bikes and even ski. In effect, it's the closest we've yet come to something that mimics the movements of a real human leg, and all for a fairly reasonable £50,000.

Skin

Even the most advanced prosthetic arms, hands and legs suffer one major drawback. You can't feel what you're touching. Hot or cold, wet or dry, rough or smooth - all remain a mystery to the artificial touch.

Well, they do for now. But scientists in both America and Italy have been working on a synthetic skin that includes a sense of touch. The 'skin' - effectively a web of sensors woven into a flexible plastic - was originally designed for robots, but its use in human prosthetics is already being explored. One possibility for the future is an artificial skin that is tougher than its natural counterpart, and better able to cope with high temperatures or physical punishment.

Man with robot (© David Hanson-Associated Press)

These days the talk is of robotics rather than prosthetics

Robotics v prosthetics

For paralysed people or the elderly with mobility problems the only solution used to be a wheelchair. But now bionic 'exoskeletons' like the Rex, developed by an American company, are allowing the wheelchair bound to stand and walk around.

Rex is a robotic - rather than prosthetic - leg replacement. It is fitted to a user who then controls 29 on-board computer processors with a joystick. Users can sit, stand, turn, walk and climb stairs with just a nudge of the control.

But robotic legs are not just for the disabled. Full body exoskeletons were originally designed for military use, turning ordinary grunts into super soldiers who could carry heavier loads over longer distances. Military trials are still being undertaken.

Brains

If there is one human 'component' we could never replace it's the brain, of course, the hugely complex originator of thoughts, feelings, actions, and a sense of who we are.

But scientists are looking at ways to replace those bits of the brain that may have been lost or damaged through disease or accident. For example, it's been shown that electrodes planted deep within the brain can help disabled people to walk.

American scientists have also been experimenting with using a microchip to restore memory function to people who have lost it due to a stroke, accident or Alzheimer's disease. The chip, which has only been tested on rats so far, would encode memories that would be passed to other areas of the brain for storage.

So what's next?

At the moment most advances in artificial limbs and organs are for medical use: they aim to restore something that is lost. But they also open up the intriguing possibility of enhancing something that is already there. Military and commercial uses for bionics are currently being explored, and though we may be a long way from a truly bionic man, we may not be far from a seriously enhanced super-human, who can see further, run faster and carry more than normal physiology would allow.

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