Hybrid Humans

Biohybrid technology fuses the organic with the artificial to extend the limits of our bodies

While the human body has proven to be a structure that is adaptable, versatile and resilient, its organic nature makes it susceptible to many diseases and various other factors capable of exposing its fragility. The term biohybrid refers to something that has integrated components of both natural and artificial material. While some of today’s biohybrid technologies seem straight out of science fiction, the idea to blend these alternate elements is actually thousands of years old….

In the year 2000, an Egyptian mummy was found wearing a wood and leather toe in place of one that was missing. Believed to be the first known prosthetic, it dates back from 1069 to 664 B.C. Current advances in biohybrid technology are beginning to have a major impact on a wide range of applications, particularly in prosthetics. However, today’s prosthetics aim to move beyond the simple replacement of a body part by striving to restore a  system to its natural function.

As Todd Kuiken explains in the video above, an issue with traditional prosthetic limbs is that they tend to be awkward, heavy and difficult to move. Often, the wearer must exhaust  other parts of their body in order to produce movement in the area the prosthetic has been placed. To help tackle this problem, in 2002,  a procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation was carried out.  This procedure involves deactivating nervous tissue in a functioning muscle of an amputated patient and later reactivating or reinnervating the area with leftover nervous tissue from their amputated limb. As a result, nervous signals can travel directly from the brain to the newly-wired muscle and onto the prosthetic device via the missing limb.

This month, the BBC is exploring the field of Bionics – the special series kicks off with a comprehensive  introduction to various advances in the field. Another article features the case of Matthew Green, whose  artificial heart is helping him get back to normal life while waiting for the right match for a permanent transplant. You can also watch a video which introduces us to 14-year- old Micheal Kane who uses  a high-tech prosthetic arm and leg.

Additionally, the BBC series includes an article  that revisits the classic 1970′s TV show: The Six-Million Dollar Man which had Steve Austin playing the world’s first bionic man- an Astronaut, ¨rebuilt¨ to be better, faster and stronger than he was before a terrible flight accident. Could something like this be possible in the future? The Japanese company Cyberdyne has already come up with a wearable robotic suit called HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb).  Designed for use in a variety of applications, Cyberdyne states it could be particularly useful for rehabilitation and physical training as well  for rescue support at  disaster sites.

There’s quite a bit of European research which is incorporating the use of biohybrid technology. The ReNaChip project, completed in 2010, successfully replaced a cerebellar circuit in a rat’s brain through the use of an implanted silicon chip. While this chip replaced the eye blinking response in the rats it was tested on, a similar chip could one day be used to rehabilitate loss of brain function caused by  Parkinson’s or Stroke.

Similarly, researchers at Queen Mary’s University  used a combination of drugs and electrical stimulation to produce normal leg movement in rats with severed spinal cords. They suggest that neuroprosthetic devices similar to one such as the ReNaChip could also be used with their technique to bridge a gap in an injured spinal cord.

If you’re interested in  exploring how  real-word technologies are blending living and artificial systems,  you won’t want to miss the Living Machines Conference being hosted by the Convergent Science Network  July 9-12 in Barcelona.

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