It is estimated that over two billion people across the world suffer from vision problems, according to an article from healthnews.com. Additionally, 14 million people have been diagnosed with a neuromuscular disorder and struggle with mobility impairments, and chronic pain has been reported by more than 50 million people.
What do all these things have in common? Each has been positively impacted by bionic technology. Dr. Seung-Jae Kim, professor of bioengineering, said bionic technology can be described as the application of engineering in medicine.
“We use technology and engineering to develop something that can restore, assist or augment the functions of the human body,” Kim said. “The objective is to improve motor or sensory functions for people with disabilities and to enhance general human performance.”
One recent advance in the realm of bionic technology is neural prosthetics. These devices use our natural neural pathways to return sight to those with vision problems.
“Retinal implants provide means to electrically stimulate the remaining nerve cells in the retina,” Kim said. “An external camera mounted on glasses converts the visual image to an appropriate electrical stimulation delivered to an array of electrodes implanted in the retina. The stimulation makes the brain perceive patterns of light, but not color.”
Bionic eyes consist of small electrodes that are implanted in the brain, optic nerve or eye. The electrodes then stimulate the functional visual pathway, allowing the individual to perceive light. At this point, the technology is unable to allow the individual to see in color. Their sight will be limited to shades of black and white. However, it is still enough to provide a meaningful image.
As the field of bionic technology continues to grow, new advances could allow color perception in neural prosthetics. It could also improve the use of exoskeletons, a wearable device for people struggling with movement impairments, such as neuromuscular disorders or spinal cord injuries. Movement becomes much more feasible with an exoskeleton reminiscent of the beloved Iron Man suit.
Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California are working on just that. Their design would allow the individual to not only walk again, but also feel each step, according to an article in Trojan Family Magazine. These suits are currently being tested on a select group of volunteers. If successful, this suit would give people the chance to do something we often take for granted: walk.
The uses of the suit extend beyond helping those with disabilities.
“Advanced robotic technology will be integrated into the development of the exoskeleton, which can be used not only for the purpose of restoring lost body functions, but it also makes industrial labor much easier to do,” Kim said.
Bionic technology has great potential to improve motor and sensory functions for people with disabilities. It can also ease the strain of manual labor, preventing associated injuries.
“As (bionic technology) is further developed, it has the potential to limit risk factors associated with systems that require a physical operation,” said Josiah Norrie, senior mechanical engineering major. “This would particularly be true for the manufacturing industry.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Bionic technology is being used to make artificial limbs more sensitive, cochlear implants — an implant to help with hearing — more effective, chronic pain more manageable and much more.
“As bionic technology continues to develop, its limits will continue to grow,” Kim said. “With this technology, we should make clear standards for what to do and what not to do. I hope that Christians will contribute and help set a noble standard for this.”