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When The Six Million Dollar Man first aired in the Seventies, with its badly injured astronaut being rebuilt with machine parts, the TV show seemed a far-fetched fantasy.
But fast-forward 40 years and the idea of a part-man, part-robot doesn’t seem so extraordinary after all.
Today, the idea of a part-man, part-robot doesn’t seem so extraordinary after all. For example, robotic arms controlled by thought are now being developed in Britain
Just last week, it was reported that former policewoman Nicki Donnelly, 33, paralysed from the waist down after a driver smashed into her police car, is now able to walk her daughter to school, thanks to a robotic exoskeleton that does the walking for her.
And today, the Mail reveals that robotic arms controlled by thought are now being developed in Britain.
Here, we look at the many ways scientists are using bionic technology to transform patients’ lives…
For people with sight loss, there is hope that they could one day benefit from extraordinary new technology to help them ‘see’ again.
Last December, ten blind NHS patients had their vision partially restored using a bionic eye.
A mini video camera mounted on a pair of glasses sent images wirelessly to a computer chip attached to the patient’s retina, the light-sensitive patch at the back of the eye.
The world the patients see via the bionic eye, called the Argus II, is black and white.
For people with sight loss, there is hope that they could one day benefit from extraordinary new technology to help them ‘see’ again
They can detect light and darkness, shapes and obstacles, and learn to see movement.
Objects appear in outline, and trials — held at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London — have shown patients can correctly reach and grab familiar objects around the house.
They could also make out cars on the street and safely cross the road using a pedestrian crossing.
Some can learn to see the numerals on a clock or read letters in large print.
This is only the start, says the maker, U.S. firm Second Sight. Face recognition and 3D vision will become available with planned software upgrades.
Brain implants are now being used to harness the power of the mind to help people who are paralysed.
For 100 years, it’s been known that the brain produces electromagnetic waves that instruct muscles in the body to move.
Now, this understanding is being used to access patients’ thoughts and move muscles.
The first person to benefit was an American man, Johnny Ray, who had locked-in syndrome and couldn’t communicate.
Brain implants are now being used to harness the power of the mind to help paralysed people
In 1998, scientists at Emory University in Atlanta implanted electrodes into his brain, and Ray was able to use the power of his thoughts to move a cursor on a screen and pick out letters, enabling him to talk to the outside world.
The system, known as Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) has now been refined, so the brainwaves can be used to make mechanical equipment move.
Last year, diners at a restaurant in Tubingen, Germany, saw a remarkable demonstration of BCI.
Several wheelchair-bound patients who had no control of their arms or legs pulled up to tables and used a bionic hand to pick up cups and feed themselves with a fork.
To achieve this, they wore soft caps fitted with 64 electrodes, which captured and transmitted brainwaves coming from the region that controls hand movements.
These brainwaves were picked up by a computer in the wheelchairs which turned the waves into electrical signals and sent them to a meshwork plastic glove wrapped round one of the patient’s paralysed hands.
With the help of BCI, several wheelchair-bound patients who had no control of their arms or legs pulled up to tables and used a bionic hand to pick up cups and feed themselves with a fork
This allowed them to open or close the bionic exoskeleton in response to their thoughts.
Only simple signals were sent to the hand — because picking up brain activity from outside the skull is difficult.
‘It’s like listening to a concert outside the hall,’ said Professor Riccardo Poli, of the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at the University of Essex.
‘The way to get a clearer signal is to open the skull and insert a computer chip directly on to a specific area, but such an invasive operation raises the risk of infection and the chip could become dislodged.’
One way around this, being tested at the University of Melbourne, is to use techniques developed for inserting a stent in a blocked blood vessel, sliding a computer chip the size of a small paperclip into a blood vessel in the relevant area of the brain.
The BCI brain technology may soon benefit patients with spinal injuries or who’ve had strokes.
And what makes this so exciting is that there is now evidence making a paralysed hand move regularly for several weeks in a BCI-driven exoskeleton can reactivate unresponsive nerves and muscles.
‘It allows patients to see the hand moving and maybe even feel it,’ says Dr Surjo Soekadar, who heads the Applied Neurotechnology Lab at Tubingen University in Germany.
‘This can wake up nerves involved with movement that had closed down.’
In one study he published in 2014, 32 stroke survivors who could not wash, dress or walk unaided no longer needed help after just 20 sessions of BCI stimulation.
The BCI brain technology may soon produce an exoskeleton that can reactivate unresponsive nerves and muscles, and can for example make paralysed hands move again
But it’s not simply that BCI technology can direct an exoskeleton or glove.
Four years ago, a lorry driver from Sweden known as Magnus became the first patient in the world to have an implanted body part controlled by the brain.
Magnus had his arm amputated above the elbow as a result of cancer.
Four years ago, he had a prosthetic with a mechanical hand implanted into the remaining bone by a team at Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenberg.
Painstaking surgery connected electrodes from the prosthetic arm to the nerves and muscles dedicated to their movement, so that when he thinks of moving his hand, it responds.
‘I was able to go back to my job as a driver and operate machinery,’ Magnus said. ‘At home, I can tie my children’s shoelaces.’ A planned upgrade, involving sensors on the hand, should soon allow him to sense how things he is holding feel.
Creating artificial limbs is relatively simple compared with the challenge of replacing or upgrading sensory organs, such as the ear.
The most successful sensory replacement so far has been the cochlear implant, a replacement for the part of the inner ear where sounds are turned into electric signals
The most successful so far has been the cochlear implant, a replacement for the cochlea — the part of the inner ear where sounds are turned into electric signals by 32,000 tiny hair cells and then sent to the brain.
In the bionic version, a microphone transforms sounds into digital impulses and onto the brain.
Patients with paralysed legs are already being helped to walk again using mechanical versions.
Right now, the most sophisticated devices for daily use involve an exoskeleton, such as that given to Nicki Donnelly.
Wearing one, you can walk at 1 mph with the aid of crutches, pressing buttons on them to control movement.
After former police officer Nicki Donnelly (pictured) was left paralysed from the chest down after a car accident while on duty, she received robotic legs to be able to walk again
Similar robotic legs have been developed by the Neuro-Rehabilitation Unit at East Kent University Foundation Hospitals Trust.
Thick and metallic with room for legs inside and flat, stable feet, they won’t take a patient anywhere fast — but, thanks to back support, they won’t let them fall, either.
‘Being in a wheelchair can lead to all sorts of problems,’ says the director of the unit, Dr Mohamed Sakel, referring to the way blood can pool, leading to clots. Other complications include osteoporosis.
‘In the legs, patients can stand up and exercise in ways they can’t using bars and the like,’ adds Dr Sakel.
‘It also allows them to move about without crutches, which means their hands are free to do things.’
Former policewoman Nicki Donnelly (left) with her daughter Eleanor (right) after completing the Great Run in Birmingham last year
A BCI system that allows control of the legs with the mind is planned.
Meanwhile, Michael Goldfarb, professor of mechanical engineering, and his team at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, have a more ambitious plan.
They are working on legs much closer to natural ones, with powered knee and ankle joints, allowing the patient to walk up and down stairs and cross uneven ground — yet they will weigh no more than a normal leg.
Injections of insulin have been the mainstay treatment for people with type 1 diabetes, who need up to five jabs a day. Now, there is an alternative: the artificial pancreas.
The role of the pancreas is to produce insulin to mop up sugar from the blood and take it into the cells.
Cambridge scientists have developed a device that can both monitor blood sugar and pump out insulin as needed — and much more accurately than patients do.
Illustration of a human pancreas. Artificial pancreas are used to inject insulin automatically up to five times a day
This helps reduce the risk of ‘hypos’ (very low blood sugar levels).
A sensor inserted just beneath the skin of the abdomen monitors blood sugar and sends information to a computer, which can calculate how much insulin is needed.
This information is then sent to a pump worn on a belt that injects insulin via a patch into the skin.
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found it improved insulin control by 25 per cent.
Last year, 16 British diabetic women became the first in the world to go through pregnancy with an artificial pancreas.
Larger trials are needed, but it’s hoped the device could be available on the NHS within two years.