Love and the Science of Bionic Limbs

By Josh Moore, Class of 2014

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“Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.” This quote by Hippocrates, ancient Greek physician and renowned medical historian, points to the foundation of all medicine: helping those who are sick and disabled. When technology and science are used to accomplish this goal, the quality of people’s lives is improved. The latest breakthroughs in medical technology have literally enabled the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk.

Bionic limbs are an especially exciting development that provide tremendous benefits for people who have suffered amputations. Doctors have observed that many times nerves in the leg of an amputee continue to transmit signals as if the limb were still attached. These signals alone, however, are too weak to be detected by the receivers in a bionic limb. In order to solve this problem, surgeons have directed the severed nerves to the muscle groups in the residual limb. When the brain sends signals to the residual limb, the new muscles twitch, amplifying the signals. The electrode sensors are able to detect these movements and send them to a computer chip that controls the bionic limb. This astounding process enables individuals with an amputation to function almost as effectively as before their injury. Unfortunately, technology like a bionic limb is often unaffordable for the people who need it most.

Ralph Merkle, a famous researcher of molecular nanotechnology, once said, “If we can reduce the cost and improve the quality of medical technology . . . we can more widely address the medical conditions that are prevalent and reduce the level of human suffering.”  The truth of this quote became evident to me through a close friend of mine with cerebral palsy. Her wheelchair was old and barely functioning after years of use, but the financial burden of a new powered wheelchair would have been extreme. It would have been impossible without financial assistance. Luckily for my friend, her local church came through for her. But there are others out there without this kind of support. This is why one of the most pressing medical needs of our day is technology that will not only advance patient care, but also lower the cost of that care.

 

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