The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain.
~ Tesla (via @NikolaTeslaBot)
Viral video of the year goes to:
Meanwhile in the DANGERZONE… err, WIRED’s Dangerroom, fusing man and machine:
The body’s own nerves are arguably the biggest barrier towards turning the dream of lifelike replacements into a reality. Peripheral nerves, severed by amputation, can no longer transmit or receive any of the myriad sensory signals we rely on every day. Trying to fuse them with robot limbs, to create a direct neural-prosthetic interface, is no easy task.
“We think the interface problem is key to enabling the neuro-prosthetic concept,” Dr. Shawn Dirk, one of the researchers behind the finding, tells Danger Room. “And solving that is how we’re going to give amputees their bodies back.”
Dirk, alongside colleagues at Sandia National Laboratories, the University of New Mexico and the MD Anderson Cancer Center, set out to develop a synthetic substance that could act as a scaffold — that is, an artificial structure that can support tissue growth — successfully merging severed nerves with robotic limbs.
Of course, researchers have already made plenty of efforts to directly integrate nerves and prosthetics. But, according to Dirk, they typically “didn’t use technology that was compatible with nerve fibers,” which are tightly bundled and flexible. “Nerves need to grow and move around; they’re not going to integrate well with a stiff interface.”
Yes, the material comprising the scaffold had to be flexible and fluid, but it also needed to be extremely conductive. Nerve signals are highly localized, and also very, very subtle. An effective neural-prosthetic interface would need to transmit thousands of different signals per second to mimic the behavior of a real limb and its relationship to the brain and body.
To create that ideal interface, Dirk and his colleagues developed their own biocompatible polymers, meant to mimic the properties of nerve tissue. The material is also porous, so that nerves can extend through it, and lined with electrodes, to vastly enhance conductivity.
“There was a very limited inflammatory response,” Dirk says. “That’s important, because we’re looking for an interface that won’t be rejected by the body. We want something that can last years, decades, and hopefully entire lifetimes.”
The finding marks a huge, huge improvement over previous research efforts. Even Darpa, the Pentagon’s far-out research arm and a leader in prosthetic science, couldn’t seem to figure out a direct neural-prosthetic interface that was adequately sensitive and had a lifespan longer than a few months. In 2010, the agency asked for new research proposals that’d solve both those problems.
And while new prototype prosthetics have some incredible abilities, none of them include a direct interface. In fact, they’ve been designed to avoid one altogether. One Pentagon-funded project used “targeted muscle reinnervation surgery” to develop prosthetics that transmit signals from a bundle of nerves in the chest. Another, led by Johns Hopkins scientists, uses brain-implanted micro-arrays to transmit cues to an artificial limb.
A direct neural-prosthetic interface still remains years away. But if this polymer holds up in subsequent tests, it’ll mean prosthetics far more lifelike than even the most impressive artificial limbs currently in development. Most importantly, in the words of Darpa, prosthetics hooked right into the nervous system “would incorporate the [artificial] limb into the sense-of-self.”
But wait, perhaps I can interest you in immortality? Meet Brooke:
“Brooke is a miracle,” says her father, Howard Greenberg. “Brooke is a mystery,” says Lawrence Pakula, her pediatrician. “Brooke is an opportunity,” says Richard Walker, a geneticist with the University of South Florida College of Medicine. They all mean the girl from Reisterstown, a small town in the US state of Maryland, who may hold the answer to a human mystery. At issue is nothing less than immortality: Brooke Greenberg apparently isn’t aging.
She has no hormonal problems, and her chromosomes seem normal. But her development is proceeding “extremely slowly,” says Walker. If scientists can figure out what is causing the disorder, it might be possible to unlock the mysteries of aging itself. “Then we’ve got the golden ring,” says Walker.
He hopes to simply eliminate age-related diseases like cancer, dementia and diabetes. People who no longer age will no longer get sick, he reasons. But he also thinks eternal life is conceivable. “Biological immortality is possible,” says Walker. “If you don’t get hit by a car or by lightning, you could live at least 1,000 years.”
And we can’t talk about the New Gods without mentioning CHRONICLE (aka #newgodsproblems). Talkback anyone?