The Bio-Engineered Future

Posted by Sam Maddox in Research News on January 09, 2016 # Research

File this in the-future-is-gaining-on-us folder.

Four news stories caught my eye in recent days, related in ways that will be mostly obvious. Feel free to speculate about the brave new mechanized breeze blowing this way. For people living with paralysis, it's time to embrace cyborgian solutions.

Item one:

The VA agreed a couple of weeks ago to pay for ReWalk exoskeleton devices for veterans with spinal cord injuries. The company says more than 20,000 paralyzed vets might be eligible for the devices, price at $77,000 each, plus training. That's cool, though the current state of exoskeletons fails to impress – when you can wear one driving a car and getting on a plane, and people don't notice, maybe then. The fact that the government will reimburse is big news, surely for ReWalk and its shareholders, but it may also ratchet up the market forces to make these things become lighter, more functional in a multitude of real world situations, and cheaper.

Item two:

The first Cybathon, the assistive device Olympics, will be held in Switzerland next fall. And yes, I am pleased to report, there will be an international 12-team exoskeleton foot race, including a guy sporting a ReWalk. There will be a number of other body-mod competitions for disabled “pilots,” as they call them, including a brain-machine interface race featuring mind-controlled computer avatars. Says the Cybathon website: “Pilots have to send the appropriate signals at the right time in order to jump over obstacles or accelerate, whereas incorrect signals will lead to slowing or crashing. This simulates the control of assistive devices that are currently being developed for future use - only thoughts allowed!”

There will be a power wheelchair obstacle race, and also an FES (functional electrical stimulation) bicycle race. A bio-engineering team from the big FES group at Case Western/ Cleveland VA Medical Center has a rider, er, pilot, in that one.

Item three:

A group at Columbia University has unveiled the first biologically powered cyborg computer chip. In a work published in Nature, researchers combined a solid-state complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) circuit with an artificial lipid bilayer membrane made of ATP-powered ion pumps. ATP, as you surely recall from studying the Krebs cycle back in high school biology, is the "molecular unit of currency," the power source for bodily functions. This discovery, as far as I know, is not yet related to the restoration of function research we cover here, but the idea that a solid state chip can be powered biologically fuels the imagination, and leads us closer, perhaps, to the kind of body-hacks that really will revolutionize humanity (see The End, below).

Item four:

The University of Washington was just awarded a four-year, $16 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop implantable reanimation device for paralyzed limbs.

That's the idea driving the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering, a University of Washington-led team that includes researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State University.

This story is more up our alley. CSNE is co-directed by Chet Moritz, whose lab at UW was just invited to join the Reeve International Research Consortium on Spinal Cord Injury, the centerpiece of the Foundation's research funding efforts. The Moritz lab replaces the Reggie Edgerton lab at UCLA. (Edgerton remains as an advisor to the Consortium).

I recently visited Moritz in Seattle. He's young, approachable, and stoked to move science toward treatments. (I wrote about Moritz and his group for the Reeve newsletter, Progress in Research; it will be shared online in the next few weeks.) Moritz is all about “hotwiring” the damaged nervous system, restoring volitional control of movement to paralyzed limbs. A key point: Chet is a biologist, not an engineer. He embraces all approaches and has in recent years been very active in electrical stimulation technologies that might drive not only function but also nerve adaptation, or plasticity. He's got a cool website, check it out.

From a UW new release:

CSNE was founded in 2011 with an $18.5 million NSF grant. Since then, its interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists, neurosurgeons, ethicists and industry partners has led the way in developing “bi-directional” implantable devices that can both pick up brain signals and send information to other parts of the nervous system.

CSNE is working on closed-loop “bi-directional brain-computer interfaces” — implants that can interpret brain signals and wirelessly transmit that information to another part of the nervous system to restore movement and promote plasticity for rehabilitation.

Said CSNE co-director and UW professor of computer science and engineering Rajesh Rao, the goal is to achieve proof-of-concept demonstrations in humans within the next five years. “When Christopher Reeve sustained a spinal cord injury due to a fall from his horse, his brain circuits were still intact and able to form the intention to move, but unfortunately the injury prevented that intention from being conveyed to the spinal cord. Our implantable devices aim to bridge such lost connections by decoding brain signals and stimulating the appropriate part of the spinal cord to enable the person to move again,” he said.

The End?

Or the beginning. You won't recognize your grand-baby's planet.

I'm a fan of an Israeli historian-futurist named Yuval Noah Harari. He wrote a book last year, Sapiens, that takes a fascinating high altitude view of the history of the human race. Says he, “History began when humans invented gods, and will end when humans become gods.” This is a quote from a recent interview:

Given the breathtaking pace of developments in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, I would be extremely surprised if in 200 years, earth will still be populated by humans like you and me. We are probably one of the last generations of Homo Sapiens. We will still have grandchildren, but I am not so sure that our grandchildren will have grandchildren. At least not human ones.

They will be more different from us than we are different from Neanderthals or chimpanzees.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.