Humans Can Now Swap Out Their Body Parts For Bionic Replacements
In the spring of 1984, something unusual began to happen to Dianne Ashworth’s vision. Swirling shapes began to fill her field of view.
“They were with me from that day,” she says. “I watched them spread inward and take over my sight.”
Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, Dr Ashworth was informed she was going blind. She was 24. She had just given birth to a son, and had quit her job in a bank to begin raising a family.
Retinisis pigmentosa is a genetic mutation. Cells in the retina produce too little or too much of certain proteins and begin to die off. As these cells degenerate, vision begins to recede.
When Dr Ashworth was first diagnosed, she was able to see about 10 per cent of the objects in her field of view.
Eventually, she had only rough perception of light and dark, but little else. She could no longer recognise faces, read, or see where she was going.
“The swirls just took over,” Dr Ashworth says.
An experimental implant
At any other point in human history, the story of Dr Ashworth’s vision would have ended there. But in 2012 she became the first person in Australia to receive a bionic eye implant.
The device, developed by Bionic Vision Australia, was installed at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne. The operation attached a silicon chip to the back of Dr Ashworth’s eye, connected by wires to a plug in the side of her head.
At the conclusion of the surgery, scientists and engineers plugged a computer into the port on the side of her head, sending small electrical pulses to the chip in her retina.
The researchers hoped these pulses would show Dr Ashworth phosphenes, the small pinpricks of white and black you usually see after rubbing your eyes. While not a substitute for full vision, the theory was that phosphenes might allow Dr Ashworth to see outlines and eventually track movement.
“No one knew whether it was going to work or not,” Dr Ashworth says. “When it did work, it was like, ‘Wow!'”
After years of seeing nothing, the phosphenes appeared as flashes, little splinters, thicker at one end, tapering to a point.
During the first day of testing the bionic eye, researchers stimulated multiple electrodes. As one was switched on, Dr Ashworth gasped. The researchers, concerned, asked if the feeling was positive or negative.
“I said, ‘No, that’s good!'” Dr Ashworth remembers. “Because it just lit up. It was an amazing feeling to be able to see that in front of my eye.”
As part of the trial, researchers asked Dr Ashworth to head out into the world. They wanted to see if she could use the phosphenes to pick her way through a busy Melbourne street.
A camera on Dr Ashworth’s head recorded what was in front of her while a computer in a backpack processed that vision, sending electrical stimuli to the electrodes in the bionic eye.
She decided to use the high-tech kit to get to a local cafe.
“Every week I used to come and have lunch,” Dr Ashworth says. “I got to know the barista very well.”
On this day, Dr Ashworth got to know the barista even better. She could see him for the first time — the phosphenes were giving her an outline.
“I had the gear on, and I could see him in front of me.” The researchers accompanying her took a picture of this moment, Ashworth says.
“Apparently I’ve got the biggest smile on my face. It was an amazing feeling.”
The bionics boom
Prosthetic body parts have been around for thousands of years, but up until just a few decades ago, they provided little control for users and were often ungainly or uncomfortable.
But advances in robotics, neuroscience and medicine over the past 15 to 20 years have paved the way for the development of an array of bionic body parts.
Bionic body parts are more than prosthetics; they function like natural parts of the body. And as each year passes, newer, more sophisticated models are released.
Arms and legs are among the most advanced examples, but parts providing sensory feedback such as bionic ears and eyes have also seen significant investment and development in recent years.
Scientists around the world are also working on a staggering range of bionic organs: everything from lungs, hearts, and kidneys, through to a pancreas and even artificial “nanoblood”.
Although many of these parts are still prototypes, in 2013 a group of scientists and engineers attempted to combine them to see if they could create a full “bionic man”. They claimed to be able to replace around 60 to 70 per cent of a human’s body parts using bionic ones.
Since then, many researchers have been working to better integrate bionic parts with our nervous system, providing users with greater control.
In 2014, a 29-year old Brazilian man, Juliano Pinto, a paraplegic, kicked off the FIFA World Cup using a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton designed by the Walk Again Project.
In 2015, Austrian reconstructive hand surgeon Oskar Aszmann announced he’d successfully pioneered a new type of surgery called bionic reconstruction: removing a partly functional hand and replacing it with a bionic one.
And last year Australian team of researchers revealed their ambitious plan to create what some have called a “bionic spine”: a tiny electrode that sits inside your brain and picks up signals and sends them to other parts of the body.
Bionics sits at the junction between science, technology and medicine, and will be able to draw on breakthroughs in each. Investment is pouring in. The bionics boom looks set to continue.
More than anything else, this is good news for those living with disability or disease.
The arms race
Bertolt Meyer’s apartment is at the top of an old residential block in Leipzig, Germany — a grungier little brother to Berlin, quickly gentrifying. The building is all old world charm, but Meyer’s apartment is sharply renovated and looks out across cobbled streets and canals.
We go into his office, a wall of psychology texts behind him, and a hobby DJ set is pushed aside to make room for my recorder.
Dr Meyer, a professor at the Chemnitz University of Technology, was born without the lower part of his left arm. Today he is wearing an iLimb, an advanced prosthetic arm made by Touch Bionics.
He’s wearing a pressed suit and tie, and his robotic arm is covered with an ornamental plastic design piece: part of a new kit that helps iLimb users personalise their artificial arms or legs.
The iLimb is an impressive, sleek device. Its slim robotic fingers have built-in pressure sensors, allowing them to detect the shape of held objects. Adaptable grips had long been a stumbling block for bionics researchers, but Dr Meyer’s first iLimb had 24 different grip patterns.
Bionic arms are among the most advanced robotic parts currently available. Owing to their use in industrial manufacturing, manipulator arms have a half-century head-start on other bionics — and US research organisation DARPA has poured vast quantities of money into creating life-like robotic limbs for wounded veterans.
But Dr Meyer says the iLimb technology was “impossible to think about only a few years ago”.
“It’s amazing, really, it has given me so much quality of life,” he says. While he speaks, his robotic wrist joint rotates a full 360 degrees.
The next evolution
At Sweden’s Chalmers University, Max Ortiz-Catalan has been working hard to make a bionic arm that’s even more advanced.
Dr Ortiz-Catalan’s bionic arms are osseointegrated—that is, connected directly into the bones, nerves and muscle tissue—for stability and superfine motor control.
The osseointegration technique starts by building a titanium arm implant into the bone of the stump. Electrodes are fed through the titanium and placed in the muscles and nerves of the arm. The cables connecting the electrodes are high-quality silicone: strong and flexible, able to take the mechanical stress of limb movement and muscle contraction.
“At this point, this is the most intimate interface that has been created between man and machine,” says Dr Ortiz-Catalan.
One of the first people to test out the osseointegrated implant was a Swedish man named Magnus. A truck driver, Magnus’s job was very physically demanding, and variations in temperature made it hard for traditional bionic arms to pick up the muscle signals at the base of his stump. However, his new arm provides him with an incredible amount of control.
Because it’s wired to the nerves in his arms, Magnus’ bionic arm not only receives feedback messages, it can even send sensory information back to his body. The neural interface can stimulate the nerves formerly used to sense touch and pressure. When his bionic hand is touched, Magnus “feels” that he is being touched.
“It is a very natural perception,” says Dr Ortiz-Catalan. “There is no training to do. At this point he can feel three locations in the hand and he can feel contact and a force.”
Where is Australia in the production of bionics?
Graeme Clark invented one of the world’s first — and most successful — bionic devices, the cochlear implant. Growing up with a father affected by severe hearing loss, Mr Clark became fixated with the idea of using electrical signals to replace natural hearing.
Mocked by his peers — his colleagues, he says, referred to him as a “clown” — Cochlear Limited is now a multimillion dollar company. The bionic ear has given hearing to hundreds of thousands of people in over 100 countries.
But the 81-year-old doctor isn’t resting on his laurels. In fact, he recently embarked on an ambitious new project: a bionic spine.
“My hope, ultimately, is to find the best possible way of helping someone with a paraplegia or quadriplegia move, feel or function as they would have before they had the injury,” he says.
As part of this work, Dr Clark’s team has been experimenting with organic polymers — materials that conduct electricity and that, when stimulated, can have an effect on biological systems.
They hope to “patch” the human spine. They’re not alone in Australia, either: another team is working towards a similar goal, pioneering the use of electrode-laden stents to safely read brain signals.
These “stentrodes” are pushed through blood vessels and spring open once they reach the right part of the brain. There, they read the brain’s commands and transmit those signals to a device.
“This could be light switches, it could be exoskeletons, it could be computers,” says Nicholas Opie, a biomedical engineer from the University of Melbourne and lead engineer for the project.
Looking to the future
That kind of technology holds incredible promise for paraplegics or quadriplegics: in 2014, a paraplegic man used a similar technology to kick off the FIFA World Cup using an exoskeleton controlled by brain signals picked up through his scalp.
Dr Opie says they’re planning to trial the stentrode on humans in 2018, which could pave the way for people to walk again, or regain control of fully paralysed bodies.
And really, that’s the point. Researchers are trying to return functionality to those who’ve lost it.
Dianne Ashworth’s bionic eye implant was a trial. The eye she used to see is heading into its second stage of testing: more electrodes lighting up more phosphenes across a wider range of vision. Hers was switched off in 2014.
Afterwards, Dr Ashworth says she felt a real loss.
“I could see that a door was open or closed. Those are big things for a person who can’t see.
“I’ve got used to not having it now. But if there was the opportunity to have one for real, I’d have one for real.”