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The Technology of Healing: From Feet To Follicles

Technology Leads to Healing

Back in the mid-seventies a popular TV series called The Six Million Dollar Man featured a badly injured astronaut who had both legs, one arm and an eye replaced by "bionic" enhancements.

At the time it all seemed pretty far-fetched, but forty years later medicine has made some staggering advances. Indeed such is the range of electronic and mechanically-assisted body parts available now, they probably surpass even the wildest of the program-makers' ideas!

From The Ground Up

Anyone who has watched paralympic sports can't fail to be impressed by two things: first, the huge disadvantages that humans are able overcome, and second the technology associated - both in terms of the specialist equipment for wheelchair athletes and the prosthetics for amputees. "Bladerunners" have now become commonplace and Alan Oliveira, despite having no lower legs, has used these advanced carbon-fiber limbs to run the hundred meters in a remarkable 10.77 seconds.

Away from the track, those blades are practically useless (it's extremely difficult to actually stand still), but there are many advances in prosthetic alternatives. Jozef Metelka is known as the man with 13 legs. Although that might sound a little bizarre - perhaps even overkill - there are good reasons for his many options.

Even with all the advanced science and technology at our disposal, we can't yet produce a leg that mimics the one most of us are born with. We can't replicate the tremendous strength and flexibility in a single unit. However, we can create them to suit specific purposes so, for example, when a titanium bolt was found to freeze in the cold conditions associated with skiing, a high-performance plastic was used instead. For mountain biking, a leg with a built-in shock absorber was designed. For road cycling, a streamlined carbon-fiber version, etc.

The same level of ingenuity and skill is being used for hands and arms. The tiny electrical signals that muscles produce can now be used to activate real-life bionics, opening and closing the hand and even allowing use of a pen or computer mouse. Currently, external sensors need to be used (normally attached to the skin), but work has already begun on the idea of brain implants.

Under The Hood

Of course it's not just outside the body where technology has gone hand-in-hand with medical advances. Hip replacements are commonplace. Heart pacemakers are now so small they can be fitted via the femoral artery - in around ten minutes - and without invasive surgery. Fantastic as that might seem, there are now entire plastic hearts available. Currently they are used as temporary replacements until a suitable donor organ can be found, but how long until permanent versions bring waiting lists down to virtually nothing?

And other body parts?Developments in artificial pancreases offer hope to Type 1 diabetes sufferers. Cochlear implants are helping people with all manner of hearing problems. Light sensitive micro-chips are bringing hope to blind and partially sighted. Deep brain implants are restoring motor functions to those who "freeze" due to Parkinson's Disease.

Facing The World

Sometimes it's just being able to face the world that's a challenge. Today's prosthetics can be electro-mechanical marvels, but often they still look like part of some weird robot.

Fortunately, advances in plastics and "fake" skin have made many items much more wearable - often difficult to tell from natural appendages. There are other less technological, but equally important advances, such as in wig technology for those with alopecia or recovering from radiation or chemotherapy. Human hair is carefully oriented to be truly naturalistic. Methods of attachment vary, taking into account increased skin sensitivity or allowing the wearer to take part in numerous sports.

The Real Six Million Dollar Man

The extraordinary advances in medical science, bionics and prosthetics is underlined by roboticists Rich Walker and Matthew Godden of the UK's Shadow Robot Co. In October 2013 they built what is claimed to be the world's first fully bionic man.

Created entirely from human prosthetics and replacement organs, he not only has working arms and legs but lungs, a heart, a spleen and even a working circulatory systems carrying blood. What's all the more amazing is that although inflation would make our original six million dollar man many times more expensive today, this experimental creation - arguably the closest thing to a human ever built - cost around $1 million.

We're may still be some way from seeing replacements for every part of our bodies, but little seems beyond us. It would appear it's no longer a question of if, but when.

More Stories By Drew Hendricks

Drew Hendricks is a writer, as well as a tech, social media and environmental enthusiast, living in San Francisco. He is a contributing writer at Forbes, Technorati and The Huffington Post.

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