Bionics, in the field of medicine, means the replacement or
enhancement of organs or other body parts by mechanical versions. It is the
technique of replacing a limb or body part by an artificial limb or part that
is electronically or mechanically powered. This artificial body part is
embedded in the nervous system such that it responds to commands from the
brain. ‘Neural Prosthetics’ is the scientifically appropriate term for these
devices, but scientists have become more comfortable with the term- ‘Bionics’,
made popular by science fiction writers.
History of Bionics
Research in Bionics began
long before it solidified as an organized academic field of study. In 1973,
University of California, Los Angeles, computer scientist Jacques Vidal
observed modulations of signals in the electroencephalogram of a patient and
wrote in Annual Review of Biophysics and Bioengineering:
“Can these observable electrical brain signals be put to work as carriers of
information in man-computer communication or for the purpose of controlling
such external apparatus as prosthetic devices or spaceships?” While
we don’t yet have mind-controlled spaceships, neural control of a prosthetic
device for medical applications is now becoming commonplace in labs around the
The earliest example of bionics can be a bionic ear- a
multi-channel cochlear implant which allows the
recipient to hear by mimicking the function of the cochlea, was first used in
1987: A patient with advanced
Parkinson’s disease is fitted with a deep-brain electrical stimulation implant.
2000: An artificial silicon
retina is implanted into a human eye. The artificial retina is made from
silicon microchips which contain thousands of tiny light-converting units.
2001: Amputee Jesse Sullivan
receives a fully robotic arm developed by the Rehabilitation Institute of
Chicago. The arm has a nerve muscle graft which allows him to use his own
thoughts to move the artificial limb.
functional artificial hearts were developed.
2007: Touch Bionics, a Scottish company, launched the
first commercially available bionic hand, named “i-Limb Hand”. It has
five independently powered digits that open and close around objects in a more
natural and anatomically correct way than any previous hand prosthesis. The i-limb hand
helped amputees across the world to improve their everyday lives with the
increased function offered by its articulating digits. According to the firm, by May 2010 it has been fitted to more than 1,200
bionics will not allow users to run
60 miles an hour or rip off steal doors, etc. What’s important in today’s
bionics is how it allows an amputee to think about their bionic/prosthesis as
part of their normal body. Recent advances in robotics technology made it
possible to create prosthetics that can duplicate the natural function of human
below are few instances of applications of Bionics in today’s world.
Zac Vawter, of Seattle, US, fitted with the world’s first
Bionic leg, walked up 2,000 steps with it. He controlled his leg with his
mind. Sending instructions from his brain, down through nerves that
communicated with his mechanical limb. “It’s exciting,” Vawter told CBS
Chicago while showing off his “bionic” leg at the Rehabilitation Institute of
Chicago (RIC). “It’s neat. It’s intuitive. It puts energy into me walking and
bionic device has shown that the marriage of mind and machine can be both
powerful and enduring, having been implanted in nearly 200,000 people around
the world during the past 30 years. That device is the cochlear implant, and
Aiden Kenny is amongst its recipients. Tammy Kenny, his mother, remembers when
she learned that her baby was beyond the help of hearing aids.
just hold him in my arms and cry,” she says, “knowing he couldn’t hear me. How
would he ever get to know me? One time, my husband banged pots together, hoping
for a response.” Aiden never heard the noise.
banging pots now. In February 2009 surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital snaked
thin lines with 22 electrodes into each cochlea, the part of the inner ear that
normally detects sound vibrations. In Aiden, a microphone picks up sounds and
sends signals to the electrodes, which pass them directly to the nerves.
soon followed bionic ear. Ray Flynn, 80, has dry age-related macular
degeneration which has led to the total loss of his central vision. He is using
a retinal implant which converts video images from a miniature video camera
worn on his glasses. He can now make out the direction of white lines on a
computer screen using the retinal implant.” The implant, known as
the Argus II and manufactured in the US by the company Second
Sight Medical Products, had been used previously in patients who were blind as
the result of the rare inherited degenerative eye disease retinitis
Edinburgh-based Mohammed Abad, lost his penis in a car crash
aged six. Mohammed, now 44, became the first man in the world to get a bionic
penis in 2012.
demonstration of the power of bionics was a spinal cord–injured patient using a
brain-controlled exoskeleton to kick off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
artificial heart was developed by SynCardia and has already been used in around
1200 patients awaiting a heart transplant. The device is a battery powered,
self-contained total replacement system.
This last and the second most widely used bionic device after
cochlear implant is the Bionic Hand- with each finger driven by its own motor.
Inside of the moulded forearm are two electrodes that respond to muscular
signals in the residual limb: Sending a signal to one electrode opens the hand
and to the other closes it. Activating both allows the user to rotate the wrist
an unnerving 360 degrees.
Touch Bionics, the maker of this mechanical
wonder, calls it the i-limb and different upgraded versions of it are being
produced every year.
The use of bionics could
see us enter a phase of designed evolution, where technology makes up for our
shortfalls and the delicacy of the human body. We could create eyes that saw
more of the colour spectrum, cochlear implants that heard beyond our current
wavelengths, limbs that could scale mountains and dust that can detect illness.
We can’t really know what we will become but we do know that we are constantly
advancing and that with the application of Bionics, the sky really is our