Introduction

12 Advances in Bionics

Amanda Page May 30th, 2012 (updated Jun 16th, 2015)
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For a long time the entertainment industry has fueled the fantasy of using science to create superhuman characters, such as “The Bionic Woman” and “Six Million Dollar Man.” Incredible bionic body parts have become a reality, but they have been focused more on repairing bodies than enhancing them. Here are some of the more amazing bionic devices and inventions being used today.

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Upright mobility
Upright mobility

The ReWalk exoskeleton suit allowed Claire Lomas, (see photo) paralyzed from the chest down from horse riding accident, to recently finish the London Marathon. It took her two weeks, but she showed how much mobility paraplegics could regain through the use of a battery-powered exoskeleton.

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Brain-driven robots
Brain-driven robots

We aren’t all the way there yet, but researchers at Brown University have created an arm that is controlled by a brain implant. The implant is packed with electrodes which listen to nerve signals in the motor cortex of the brain and that directs the robotic arm. Cathy Hutchinson, (see photo) who has been paralyzed for 15 years, is now able to use the robotic arm to lift a cup of coffee to her lips. 

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Seeing is believing
Seeing is believing

Earlier this month, scientists were able to help two completely blind men see shapes and light by implanting electronic retinas into their eyes. This “bionic eye” is a tiny microelectronic chip that is placed behind the retina and connected to a battery placed under the skin behind the ear. The chip contains pixels that are stimulated when light enters the eye, sending a message to the brain through the optic nerve.

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Handheld diabetes control
Handheld diabetes control

Trials begin this year for a hand-held artificial pancreas monitor that is designed to help Type 1 diabetics manage their condition by automatically regulating blood sugar and insulin levels.  The hand-held device acts as an insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor, which manages the condition for the patient.  The user of the device simply inputs what they ate and the bionic pancreas will start regulating blood sugar levels.  

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Regaining natural movement
Regaining natural movement

The first bionic leg capable of natural movement, including powered knee and ankle joints that can operate in unison, has been developed at Vanderbilt University. This device allows amputees to move with a natural fluidity, as opposed to the rigid leg- dragging movements of previous bionics. It also makes it easier for them to walk up slopes and over uneven terrain. It even can stop a person from stumbling. 

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Hearing restored
Hearing restored

The bionic ear has returned hearing to tens of thousands of people. This device is a microphone that attaches to the outside of the head, converting sound into electrical signals. The signals then pass through a wire connected to the cochlea, which causes electrodes to deliver the signal to the auditory nerve.

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Ful-'filling' your dentist's wishes
Ful-'filling' your dentist's wishes

New nanocomposites not only fill cavities, but they kill off bacteria and can even regenerate portions of teeth lost to decay!  Until now fillings didn’t come with a lifetime gurantee.  While the lifespan of these new fillings hasn’t been determined, they are certain to outlive current technology by many years. 

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Have a heart
Have a heart

Many people in need of a heart transplant have died due to long waiting lists and low availability. But, today, artificial plastic hearts that can last up to three years can be used to buy patients extra time. The bionic heart, like a natural heart, contains two chambers, one responsible for blood intake and the other blood output. The heart contains a pump that forces air in and out of the plastic heart, allowing blood to circulate through the body. 

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Brain gain
Brain gain

A breakthrough in deep brain stimulation shows promise in improving the lives of patients with Parkinson’s, dementia, depression, and those who’ve suffered a stroke. The device is a small generator placed in the back of the neck that sends small bursts of electricity through a cable to electrodes placed in the brain. The electrodes then deliver stimulation to the damaged areas of the brain. 

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The skinny on E-skin
The skinny on E-skin

The properties of skin are quite amazing due to its ability to sense pressure, temperature, and levels of pain. Scientists are trying to recreate these qualities in an “e-skin” which is made up of a complex woven web of electronics and sensors combined in a plastic that bends and stretches. Ultimately scientists want to use the ‘skin’ to cover bionic limbs.

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Pain no more
Pain no more

Subcutaneous pain relief is being explored with an implantable device that helps reduce shoulder pain in stroke patients and others suffering from chronic pain.  The device stimulates peripheral nerves within muscle tissue to treat pain.  The device is still in the testing phase and is being considered for patients who don’t respond to or can’t tolerate existing therapies.  

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24/7 monitoring
24/7 monitoring

Anabolic sensors that are nearly invisible can be used to monitor medicine use. The sensors are made of food ingredients, and are activated by stomach fluid. This year, the company Proteus Biomedical plans to have the first commercially available version of such a product.