'We can rebuild him. We have the technology.' Almost.
Three decades after the hit television programme The Six Million Dollar Man described how the broken body of a former astronaut was rebuilt with mechanical parts, scientists are closer than ever to creating such cyborgs.
The character Steve Austin, played by Lee Majors, became a 1970s pop culture icon after his legs, right arm and left eye were replaced in an operation that gave the world the catch phrase: "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology."
Yesterday, at the Experimental Biology 2006 meeting attended by around 12,000 delegates in San Francisco, leading scientists explained in a symposium on "The $6 Billion (Hu) Man" how much of what was once fiction is becoming reality - including electronically powered legs, arms and eyes.
LEGS: Computer-controlled strap-on robotic legs that enable the wearer to carry heavy loads of up to 200lb, with no more effort than it would take to carry 10lb, have been developed by Dr Homayoon Kazerooni of the University of California, Berkeley.
Dr Kazerooni sees this exoskeleton as having wider applications, such as making the elderly and frail more mobile, while the military hopes the research will help soldiers carry heavy loads for long distances and give them superhuman strength.
A similar device - Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL - was also unveiled yesterday in Tokyo by Japanese climbers. An expedition to climb the 13,600ft Breithorn mountain in Switzerland in August will see able-bodied members use the exoskeleton to carry Seiji Ushida, 43, who was paralysed in a 1993 car accident, and Kyoga Ide, 16, who has muscular dystrophy, to the peak.
The suits, developed by Cyberdyne and Tsukuba University, can already help with simpler tasks, such as climbing stairs and rising and sitting.
ARM/HAND: Dr William Craelius and his team at Rutgers University have created a bionic hand - Dextra - that uses existing nerve pathways to control individual computer-driven mechanical fingers.
Dextra consists of a standard plastic socket and sensor sleeve that encases an amputee's limb below the elbow. After training, operating the fingers is biomimetic, that is, it is done by normal volitional thinking, as if the user were commanding his natural fingers.
Users have been able to type and play slow piano pieces with Dextra. A European Union project, called Cyberhand, hopes to add the sense of touch.
EYES: A bionic eye has been developed by a team led by Dr Daniel Palanker at Stanford University's department of ophthalmology. The eye, a "retinal prosthesis", consists of a portable wallet-sized computer processor, a battery implanted in the eye, a 3mm (half the size of a grain of rice) light-sensing chip implanted in the retina, and a tiny video camera mounted on special goggles.
The system is designed to do what the eye's own photoreceptors should do in patients with degenerative retinal diseases.
For patients who have lost vision through retinitis pigmentosa, age-related macular degeneration and other diseases that destroy the body's own light-sensing receptors, 20/80 vision would mean being able to recognise faces and read large print type. Human trials of the first generation are expected to begin within two years.
EARS: Prof Werner Nachtigall of the University of Saarland, Germany, and Dr Stefan Launer, director of research at the company Phonak, have developed what they called digital bionics, after studying how the brain and ear interact and how the inner ear processes sounds. They have replicated the process using a tiny chip for a new generation of hearing aids.
"We looked closely at the unsurpassed capability of the human ear for localising, identifying and separating different sounds and how we could mimic the ear's natural auditory processing within our new hearing systems," said Dr Launer.
For more than two decades, cochlear implants have been carried out to restore hearing. Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sound, cochlear implants consist of two parts, using one to pick up sound through an external microphone located behind the ear and transmit sound as a radio signal across the skin to the second part, an implanted receiver that stimulates the auditory nerve.Sharpening its focus
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