Artificial intelligence for healthcare continues to improve, leading to the expansion of bionics technology. Such health technology, like bionic limbs or eyes, provides new opportunities for patient care so they can lead fuller lives. This article explores the medical bionics tools of today and tomorrow.
What if a prosthetic hand could feel? What if a person with a spinal cord injury could strap on an exoskeleton and relearn to walk? What if a bionic eye could help a blind person regain sight, or an ankle-foot prosthetic mimic a real walking gait and anticipate the wearer’s next move?
These amazing medical bionics tools and others are already being put to use. The present and future of bionics technology are changing healthcare and patients’ lives.
One of the most powerful medical bionics tools has to be the robotic exoskeleton. Designed for a clinic, this bionic work of art provides a rehabilitation experience to get patients walking again.
It might look like something out of a science fiction movie, but when a patient with a stroke or spinal cord injury uses the exoskeleton to regain strength and mobility in his lower body, the results are true and amazing with no special effects!
Why is it being used? Physical therapists might assist the patient in doing the same walking exercises, but it’s a clumsier and physically demanding method for everyone involved. Building up strength in the legs takes a long time. Relying on a strong, intelligent machine to provide the walking mobility needed to strengthen an injured patient produces better results in less time.
Bionics for the Eyes
A prosthetic eye might look like an eye, but it doesn't see. A bionic eye is an implant inside the existing eye, designed to work with the inner eye structures and the brain, allowing a person to regain vision.
The U.S. has one FDA-approved bionic eye system to help patients with severe retinitis pigmentosa, a rare group of inherited diseases that cause retinal degeneration. Common symptoms include difficulty seeing at night and loss of side (peripheral) vision. The implant allows the patients to see movement, light, and shapes. The vision is not perfectly clear, but it is a big improvement!
Researchers continue to develop other versions of the bionic eye to treat other forms of sight loss.
You know the future is here when the news tells about a patient with a bionic hand that actually feels! How does it work? Sensors in the robotic hand determine whether an object is soft or hard, and that information is sent to a computer. The computer sends information to the patient's brain via tiny electrodes implanted into the upper arm. The brain understands this information, and the patient can do things like getting dressed, pick up a coffee cup, or fluff a pillow.
These normal operations for a healthy hand are very difficult for a prosthetic hand. However, the advancements in bionic hands cross that barrier, creating a useful machine connected to the human brain.
It has five fingers that move in an absolutely natural way to equal 90% a real hand, receiving signals from nerve impulses that are transmitted from the brain through the muscles to its electrodes.
Each finger is equipped with special sensors that give the amputee the real sensation of touch and a motor that allows bending of the phalanges. An additional motor controls the opposition movement instead, the one that will enable you to grab an object between your thumb and another finger. Compared to other similar prototypes (it is not the first time that a device of this type comes out), it does not require surgical interventions. A titanium bridge connects the bones and nerve endings in the muscles to the new robotic hand with flexible fingers and a somewhat sci-fi appearance.
Direct line with the mind: The bridge that allows the dialogue between hand and brain is represented by 4 tungsten electrodes of the thickness of a hair (10 millionths of a millimeter).
Simultaneous translation: The electrodes were then connected to an interface that records the nerve impulses sent from the brain to the peripheral nerves of the limb and translates them into digital signals, i.e., the language of the bionic hand. This advanced equipment, for now external, should in future be incorporated into the limb.
Neuropsychological studies are now exploring the possibility that a bionic hand can actually be integrated by the brain into its own body representation, i.e., into the map that the brain has of parts of our body. This, if possible, would transform the graft into a real "spare part" accepted and coordinated by the mind as if it were a biological limb.
Bionic Ankle-Foot Prosthetic
Amputees using a normal ankle-foot prosthetic are grateful for the ability to walk. However, advancements in bionics technology now make the ability to walk even better or more precisely, they make it easier.
A bionic ankle-foot prosthetic can mimic a walking gait, anticipating the patient's next move and intelligently adjusting the velocity. Not only does a bionic ankle-foot prosthetic allow for a more natural-looking walk, but it also requires less energy to walk than a passive ankle-foot prosthetic. Just imagine a bionic ankle-foot prosthetic giving an amputee a look and feel that closely mimics the use of a biological human ankle and foot!
What are Health Tech Advancements in the Future of Medical Bionics?
These things might sound like the work of science fiction, but they are actually innovations in the works:
- Digital contact lenses which measure blood glucose levels through tears
- Augmented reality allowing surgeons to see through anatomical obstacles in the body
- Drugs created with medical 3D printing
- An intelligent surgical knife
- Machines using radiology to check many different symptoms at once
Keep your mind open for new bionics technology reaching into the medical field and creating new options for patients and doctors. Bionic limbs still have a long way to go and they have to achieve more control, sensitivity and motion of ‘biological’ limbs.