Saturday, November 29, 2008

Bionic Man: From Science fiction to Science Fact

Science fiction is being transformed into science fact using tiny implants effectively to channel brain-waves to prosthetic limbs.
Children of the 1970s will remember the American TV series The Six Million Dollar Man featuring Steve Austin as a bionic man.
Micro Bridge Services, based at Cardiff University, south Wales, is pioneering work which brings that fiction close to reality.
It is a leader in micro-engineering design and manufacture and possibly the only firm in the world capable of creating the implants.
The implants are the size of a match head which carries 100 sensors made of extremely hard tungsten carbide which conducts electricity.
The sensors are only slightly thicker than a human hair and sit on the brain picking up nerve impulses to relay to prosthetic limbs.
The hope is the technology will be instrumental in allowing amputees to learn to move prosthetic limbs and regain lost mobility.
Micro Bridge Services Ltd was set up by Cardiff University to tap the commercial potential of research being done there.
Researchers at Utah University, in the USA, asked the Cardiff Company to develop micro-needle array sensors which are durable.
The American team had already been successful developing implants capable of manipulating computers and prosthetic appendages.
But the implants had been made of silicon which proved to be brittle and had a useful life of less than a year.
The micro-needle array needed to be hardy but capable of penetrating deep enough into the brain to pick up electrical signals.
As a pioneer in its field its ability to manufacture the tiny micro-needle array precisely using an extremely strong material proved vital.
The implant works by detecting electrical signals from the brain, amplifying them then transmitting them to produce movements in the prosthetic limbs.
A patient fitted with an implant literally has to learn to think the correct mental activity to get the required response from the system.
Weeks of training are necessary but tests on volunteers have already shown promising results.
The outcome, is supposed to be what people call a bionic man.
For the future the hope is that the technology could be used on patients paralyzed in accidents which damage the spine.
The implant would be placed on the spinal column effectively bridging the injury and allowing them to relearn how to move.

--By Richard Alleyne