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1 year ago
We're Closer Than Ever to Building the Bionic Human

Lost a leg? Need a new spleen? Going under anesthesia? There’s a robot—and possibly even an app—for that. The last few years have given way to tons of crazy advancements in the fields of robotics and bionics. Here’s a look at some of the coolest ones reinventing medicine.

Bionic Body Parts
Prosthetics are nothing new. But now, they are electronic, loaded with sensors—and information about what you do while wearing them can be uploaded to your phone or computer. For instance, the C-Leg 4 is an above-the-knee prosthetic leg that users can control and change the settings for with a smartphone app. It even tracks the user’s activity, walking speeds, sitting time, and other data points to help with the rehab process, says Amit Bansal, doctor of osteopathic medicine and clinical instructor of rehabilitation medicine at NYU Langone's Rusk Rehabilitation Center.

Plus, it gives users more mobility than non-robotic prosthetics ever could. The knee tension is variable, so people can walk, jog, and run at various speeds. They can also stand without having to lock the device and can even walk backward, none of which are possible with traditional above-the-knee prosthetic legs.

“Can you imagine trying to cross a street in New York City if you couldn’t walk backward?” says Bansal. “With any amputation, the goal is to recover the patient’s function back to where they were. It does take time, but advancements like this really make this possible.”

Further north, the i-limb ultra is a prosthetic mobile-app control hand that comes programmed with 14 grip patterns and gestures to complete daily tasks. While prosthetic arms and hands are still far from common—they are most often used with military personnel—they should become mainstream in the next five to 10 years, says Bansal. Fashion model Rebekah Marine, who is missing her right forearm, is seen below with the i-limb ultra. 

Researchers have also developed functioning prototypes of artificial spleens, pancreases, and lungs, all of which could be solutions to the current shortage of transplantable organs, although their mainstream use is probably fairly far out into the future. The SynCardia Total Artificial Heart (below), however, has already been put into use. Patients have been able to use it for nearly four years before receiving a successful permanent heart transplant.

Surgery-Assisting Robots
When it comes to reducing human error during surgeries, robots are where it’s at, explains Jonathan Vigdorchik, M.D., assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and leader in robotic orthopeadic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Surgeons aren’t always as good as we think we are,” he says. “We aren’t always hitting our targets as close as we want.”

However, the Mako Robotic-Arm Asssited hip and knee surgey, which assists in partial knee and hip replacements, is on point. It hones in on the area of the bone that’s damaged so that surgeons can resurface it while sparing surrounding healthy bone and ligaments, says Vigdorchik. Meanwhile, with the da Vinci Surgical System, a surgeon is able to insert miniature instruments and a high-def 3-D camera into the patient to view the surgical site and make general, cardiac, gynecological, and other surgeries minimally invasive, more accurate, and safer.

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“Advancements in robotics allow us to complete surgeries before our patients ever enter the operating room,” says Patrick Meere, M.D., clinical associate professor of orthopedic surgery and leader in robotic orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. “Before the surgery, we already know exactly how our patients will be after the surgery because we have already done it in the virtual world.”

Apart from helping doctors to actually complete surgeries, robots are also assisting anesthesiologists to crunch numbers, says Marie Csete, M.D., Ph.D., president and chief scientist with Huntington Medical Research Institutes. “By using math to keep the patient stable, the anesthesiologist can do their other job—keeping the patient hydrated with proper amounts of blood products, supporting organ function—a little easier,” she explains.

Brain Implants
Your brain controls just about everything, right? So if you insert some electrodes, there’s no end to the list of symptoms and conditions you could potentially treat.

Called deep-brain stimulation, treatment involves inserting electrodes in specific regions of the brain, depending on what’s being treated. Currently, they are largely used to relieve Parkinson’s-related tremors, movement disorders, and chronic pain but also show promise for treating depression, insomnia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, and the list goes on, says Csete. The electrodes connect to long wires that run under the skin down to the chest where they hook up to a battery-powered stimulator. When turned on, it sends electrical pulses to the electrodes, thereby block the faulty nerve signals that are to blame for whatever’s ailing the patient.

Still, cerebral implants can be used for treatments outside of deep brain stimulation, says Csete. For instance, Second Sight, which has already created a retina implant, is currently working on a vision-restoring device that would connect to the brain’s visual cortex. It’s planning to launch a human trial in 2017.

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