With the ushering in of the cyborg age, the possibilities of what people can do are limitless. The cyborgs have already been introduced in some aspects of life, while in others the process to introduce them is ongoing. Some areas that have seen the early introduction of cyborgs is in warfare, to increase human soldiers’ efficiency with plans to use cyborg soldiers in progress to reduce war casualties.
Scientists are working towards full realization of cyborg age in medicine. One such scientist is Hugh Herr, who through his life has set a good example that the best way to predict your future is by inventing it. After a mountain climbing accident that saw his legs amputated from the knees down, Hugh was frustrated by the artificial legs that he found unacceptable. He wondered why medical technologies would invent replacement parts that limited one’s ability rather than improve them. This saw the beginning of a journey he would take three decades after the accident to not only reinvent himself but also the whole world.
Today he is the director of The Biomechatronics Group at MIT Media Lab, where he has created advanced prosthetic that he not only uses to walk and run, but helped him go back to his passion of mountain climbing. Working with his colleagues at MIT’s, Hurry believes that in 50 years time, they will have largely eliminated all forms of disabilities, both physical and emotional. This will not be made possible by pharmacological or biological cures, but by novel electromechanical additions in the body.
Scientists with the help of engineers are inventing electronic based systems that are promising new treatments. These treatments may see the end of physical and mental conditions, by communicating directly with the human nervous system.
Herr’s team is focusing on the physical disability by building prosthetic limbs that give people the ability to do more or less anything they would with natural legs. By understanding the brain’s command and sending those commands to the prosthetic, the team’s aims at connecting the brain with the machine.
Such efforts have borne fruit with a test carried out by Herr being a success. The setup involved Herr flexing muscles around his knee like attempting to take a step, using an electromyograph an electric signal in the muscles are captured and sent to his artificial foot. The microprocessor in the artificial foot then translated the digital signal and made him take a step.
According to him, when he achieves complete success of connecting prosthetics directly to the amputee’s residual limbs peripheral nerves, by that time, it will be finally possible to directly connect the machine with the brain. “When that happens, it will not matter what the prosthetic is made of, it will be you” says Herr. The amputees will be in control of the prosthetic and the physical disability will be a thing of the past.
Other scientists are working towards eliminating emotional ailments and give people better control of their emotions. In most cases (unlike people with physical disabilities), people with emotional disabilities most of the time do not define themselves as disabled, nor do they know when it started. Depression is many people way of lives that have neither pleasure for the present nor hope for the future. With experiments like DBS (deep brain stimulation), neuroscientists are hoping to be able to treat brain disorders.
DBS involves electrodes being implanted in the brain to alter the neuron activities. Initially this technology was invented to treat Parkinson’s patients’ tremors. Today the technology is being used to treat neural and psychiatric disorders, including obsessive-cumpulsive disorders, PTSD and depression.
The experiment has shown positive results with Parkinson’s patients, the electrodes implanted in their brains reducing neurons that are misfiring. But with depression patient, the results for both the target group and mechanism of action are considerably less clear. But Helen Mayberg, an authority in DBS depression and a neurology professor at Emory University, notes the unclear results could be as a result of the neuroscience limitation and not the engineering. To her, by implanting the DBS device in the correct area in the brain, she has seen remarkable results.
The DBS depression treatment has faced a setback when one of the key clinical trials was put to a halt due to what was termed as “futility analysis”
The realization of cyborgs bringing an end to all forms of disability is headed in the right direction after massive neuroscience initiatives being launched. In the United States ‘The Brain Initiative’ have been launched with new tools that analyze and record brain activities better, while in Europe the ‘Human Brain Project ‘which uses supercomputers to stimulate human brain and eventually understand better how it functions. It’s up to the scientists to now know about the working of the neurons as much as the engineers should know the working of an electrode and make the cyborg age a reality.