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Bionics: It's not science fiction anymore

This monkey in Brooklyn can move a robotic arm in North Carolina just by thinking about it -- thanks to bionics.  

From Dr. Sanjay Gupta
CNN Medical Unit

(CNN) -- If you're like most people, you were introduced to bionics by Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. That was 1973. Time has made technology more expensive -- but also more useful to real people.

The melding of human and machine is today being used not to run 60 miles per hour or see miles away but rather to regain mobility, restore vision and allow the deaf to hear again.

At Neural Signals, one of the leading companies in the field, scientists are developing computer systems that respond to human nerve impulses.

"We electronically record through the skin with a pad electrode," says Dr. Philip Kennedy of Neural Signals. "And even if there's no movement, there's often some -- even small -- muscle activity, which must be associated with electrical activity, and we can pick that up."

That's the first use of bionics nowadays. The fancy term is "peripheral computer interface." But basically, it makes hands and feet useful again.

Researchers say substituting wires for nerves is still many years away. But what about now? We've known that computers can talk directly to the brain but is there a way that the brain can talk directly to a computer?

"When we have a thought, we know that there's activity, electrical activity, in the brain," says Kennedy. "So we're trying to pick up some of that activity, and use that in our simple systems just to control a computer cursor."

Here's how it works. Commands from the brain are read through a brain implant, placed inside the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls body movement. As the patient thinks about a movement, the electrode picks up a signal, amplifies it, then transmitts it through the skin to a computer.

In experiments, a quadriplegic man has been able to move a computer cursor just by thinking about it, and a monkey has moved a robotic arm in the same way.

Even though these devices are still in the future, bionics are already around us. A cochlear implant, a morphine pump, or even an artificial heart are examples of this merging of electronics and biology, steadily bridging the gap between human and machine.


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