Who… or what is your new neighbor?

If you could pick–and I’m sure you’ll rarely get this chance–the next family to move in next door to you, who would you pick? The Partridge Family? The Adams Family? The Harriets? How about… The First Cyborgs.

Well, small scale bionic applications are actually being installed in a large number of people, primarily for medical conditions that fail to respond to traditional therapies. So, it will become increasingly more likely over the next decade that your neighbor will be “hard wired” in some way. This article from ZDNet News provides a nice objective overview of many ideas applications that are popping up in the neurotechnology industry. You should at least skim through the article, so that you’ll be ready when your send over a house-warming pie to your new neighbor.

Be thoughtful regarding some of the applications, however. This suggestion is certainly not encouraging “dooms-day” reactions to bionics, but to be wary of new technology companies spitting out bionic chips for uses where alternate, cheaper, and more reasonable approaches are available.

[Read the article from ZDNet News]

Remembering with “Silicon Neurons”

“Where did I put my keys?” “What is the name of that… that one guy who borrowed my car?”Every human tends to be forgetful now-and-then. Our memories will become even worse if actual damage occurs to brain cells from a stroke or advanced Alzheimer’s disease. One optimistic outlook for brain-implanted neuron devices is that they could be used to help keep our memories sharp, or at least replace the function of lost neurons critical for remembering the names of your loved ones.

Prof. Theodore Berger at the University of Southern California is working on developing circuits that can be used to fill a functional gap due to damaged neurons. Their interesting approach to developing “bionic” chips is to implant a silicon processor into the hippocampus to interface with existing neurons. (This part of the brain is considered to have a significant role in memory function.)

At the time of this article, the group has not demonstrated an actual implanted chip calculating away inside a living brain. Rather, they have mathematical models that have guided their chip’s circuit design. Simulations show that these things might work, but it all depends on how well the initial models were set up. They also don’t talk too much about how they plan to interface the silicon chip’s electrodes with existing neurons in the brain. This will be the critical step for a successful implanted device. We’ll keep a close, and excited eye on this group from USC!

[Read the article from the International Herald Tribune]

Blind man sees stars

Two completely blind patients received a neuroprosthetic implant in April from the The Dobelle Institute. After some reorientation, they can now walk around a room without running into desks and chairs, and even drive a car (on a private course)!

OK, so they can’t quite yet enjoy the subtle strokes of Monet, but they can see flashes of white light from their surroundings of which they must learn to interpret. This is still a fabulous development and a critical start to initiate more technological improvements towards restoring shape recognition and color sensitivity to the blind.

The current device takes images from a small camera mounted on special sunglasses. A computer processes the images and sends some electrical signals directly to the visual cortex (a chunk of brain in the back of your head). These visual system brain cells are stimulated in some unknown way, and the patient sees stars.

This is quite an interesting technique because it bypasses the eyes’ input neurons, and sends information directly to the brain. Recent alternative techniques collect light focused on the retina at the back of the eye. Then the brain may interpret the information through estalished image processing neural patheways, just as if the eye were functioning normally.

A direct shot of visual information to the brain’s visual cortex requires special training of the patients so that they may adopt an understanding of exactly how the pattern of white spots relate to the real world. So, this might not be an ubiquitous approach, but best for patients who have completely damaged or removed retinas from an injury.

[Read the original press release from St. Louis University]

[Read the article from CNN]

Bionic Eye

Optobionics is developing an artificial retina that is being used to help partially restore vision in people with age-related degeneration or retinal diseases.

A small silicon chip with 5,000 electrodes is implanted into the back of the eye. Each electrode transforms incoming light into electrochemical pulses that stimulate existing retinal cells. The first patients are now able to see more light, although cannot yet make out visual details.

This advancement follows a cochlear implant made by Advanced Bionics, which was installed last month in Cora Jean Kleppe, 73. She can now hear her grandchildren and function better in life.

The amazing part is the brain only needs a little bit of crude information to reconstruct the sounds or sights around it. These devices are not sending detailed information, but only rudimentary electrical signals based on light impinging on an electrode or a small microphone mounted on their head. Your brain can adapt its neuron network to properly interpret the environment based on whatever information it can scrounge from these sorts of devices. Don’t be surprised if these first bionic patients experience improved responses over time.

[Read the article from CNN]

The Bionic Human

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle provides a nice overview of the history and current state of prosthetic devices and implants. The report makes the important distinction between what is reality and what is still fantasy for the “bionic human”.

Don’t forget our bodies are composed of living tissue, which doesn’t like sitting near plastic and metal. This is the most difficult limitation at this time making the prospect of humans entirely re-composed of artificial parts very arduous.

Until we can build functioning devices out of the living tissue itself, don’t expect seeing Bionic Woman walking around in your neighborhood any time soon.

[Read the article]

Last updated October 26, 2021