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Bionic

Connections
By

Hannah Jeske
Chemistry
Mrs. Dorn

Cullen, Smith (2013, January). Bionic Connection. Scientific American, Volume 308, Issue 1, pgs. 52-57

Perhaps one of the most famous movie series of all time, Star Wars, making an approximate franchise
gross of 1.918 billion dollars, was at its heydays movie-making business pinnacle. Today, few souls around dont
recognize the iconic sound of light saber impact, and theres no wonder why. Director George Lucas spent a
considerable amount of time and money on the special effects and technology that went into the six films. (To
whoever constructed those big, galactic fight scenes between the Rebel and Imperial armies, heres my tip of the
hat.) But just imagine the geeks out there if they found out that the technology seen in Star Wars could be reality!
In specific, what if the bionic hand fitted to Luke Skywalkers wrist at the end of Episode V was replicated in real
life- infrastructure and all?
For some scientists, it would be a dream-come-true just to see how a piece of Lucas technology like that
would work; and as it turns out, a couple of scientists, by the names of Kacy Cullen and Douglas H Smith, are
currently working on figuring just that out! Have you ever heard of such devoted Star Wars fans? Well, make fun
of them as you will, but it seems as though their research is coming along, slowly but surely. Cullen and Smith are
researching different ideas to connect an artificial limb to the body in a natural way. Their theory is that there must
be a way to let the brain control the divergent appendage as if it were always there but, at the same time, prevent
the immune system from feeling threatened by the add-on, which is viewed as intruding baggage. The following
report will further explain these two scientists research.
The hand-eye coordination of a human being is such a complex thing to think about. Just to pick up a
pencil, the brain has to constantly send messages back and forth to the hand and, at the same time, tell all other
body functions to keep on doing what theyre doing. Without that chain of command, nothing would be telling
your body not to suddenly spaz out or do something else crazy and uncalled-for. Scientists study these things very
carefully, especially when programming artificial limbs for amputees. Their goal is the produce a limb that can be
just as efficient- if not better- than a functioning human limb.
So far, scientists havent been able to create a man-made limb good enough to surpass the quality of a real
mans limb, but Cullen and Smith have come up with a few ideas. If they could only hook up an artificial limb to

the amputees brain, spinal cord, or nervous system, the patient might be able to obtain back some serious fine
motor skills and maybe even develop the ability to feel the fake limb like a regular body part. Although, its easier
said than done. Cullen and Smith are exploring the following two options for connecting their own limb
prototypes wiring to the brains wiring: (1) The brain can be tricked into thinking the fake appendage has been
there all along or (2) the brain can be trained into that same thinking. Though these two options sound very
similar methodically, the two scientists are approaching both ideas from two different angles.
Tricking the brain into bionic cooperation involves taking advantage of what is called an amputees
phantom limb syndrome. This condition is one in which the amputee still feels as though his or her missing
appendage is still there, but the misfiring signals sent out to the brain arent connecting (much like getting no
phone reception in a certain area of the country). But, by attaching a limb back on to the dead nerve ends, in
theory, the faulty signals would be retrieved and, then, be able to deliver meanings to the brain again. Keep in
mind that this trick approach to brain connection is definitely not without a few drawbacks; however, if all goes
well, the results of this solution sound almost too good to be true. The brain would know no better than to think
that the missing limb just magically appeared again and is fully functional. From there, all motor skills would be
ready to kick back into action, unknowingly, through a totally new, alien body part. The new limbs fine motor
skills and sense of feel would be remarkable! Again, this is if all goes well and scientists are able to conquer the
battle with the immune systems defense against foreign objects.
The phantom limb syndrome method isnt the only option though. Cullen and Smith have other ideas
floating around at their disposal. But before anything else, the two have to figure out which of the three optionsthe brain, spinal cord, or nervous system- would be the best candidate for the wiring to be hooked up to. Each
option has its own set of pros and cons, but researchers have found that concentrating on the brain is the least
invasive tactic. In a very logical viewpoint, its important to avoid as much collision with the immune system as
possible.

As anyone might have realized when studying the snags of making a synthetic limb, the struggle between
the internal wiring and the amputees immune system is one of the greatest obstacles that scientists have to face.
Actually, this problem not only comes up when dealing with amputees in need of a new limb but also concerning
any other man-made implants inside the body. Without a solution, nerve cells die faster as an immunity response
to the invading objects. Having an insufficient amount of nerve cells to work with, the signals and their meanings
going to the brain become weaker and less-decipherable, leading to a gradual lack of bionic efficiency and,
eventually, a (dramatically said) system meltdown.
Nevertheless, the situation is not hopeless. Already, a certain conductive filament has been discovered to
fit the bill. The filament tolerates the necessary electrical current and, most importantly, is in good cooperation
with the body. Amazing discovery, isnt it? With all good time, Cullen and Smith will attach the dead nerves at the
amputees stump to the filament and train the brain and body until its used to the new connection. The dead
nerves will, hopefully, reawaken and become functional once more thanks to the electrical current running
through.
Finally, youre probably wondering what kind of technology is out there which can connect the nerves
and the wires in a way that makes sense to the body. In short, nerves and wires are quite different from one
another. Although seemingly similar, each transmits a different kind of signal. Nerve signals communicate with
the brain by sending out signaling chemicals; whereas, wires require some kind of conductive material in order to
run an electrical current through. Nonetheless, Cullen and Smith havent failed in coming up with this answer to
the call: the creation of a neural bridge. Instead of invasively stretching the amputees nerve fibers so as to fill the
space between the nerves and wires, Smith came up with a way to stretch them out in a more natural way. In
experimentation, the nerve fibers were even stretching long enough to fully repair the damaged nerves.
Now that youve got the basic premise down, lets talk about the amputees themselves. Tasks that seem
simple to most, like buttoning a shirt or stirring a cup of coffee, take a lot of effort. People who are forced to
struggle daily with doing the mere things that are considered easy in life deserve the best of the best technology

to help them. The problem is, the cost of this equipment is so much that many amputees cant afford it. Using a
synthetic limb that doesnt connect to the brain waves may be less costly, but it does take much more work for an
amputee to use it. The user has to closely watch the, say, artificial hand, and rely on his or her eyes to feel around
for results in the task. When they finally finish the task, the amputee is generally very worn-out.
Comparatively, with a bionic connection to the brain, the user only has to think about what he or she
wants done. The artificial hand does the work and tracks the brain waves for his or her commands; in this way,
results can be achieved far quicker, lessening frustration levels and ending without too much fatigue. Between one
less expensive and one more expensive limb, a perfect world would give every amputee the amount of money
needed for the latter. Unfortunately, reality doesnt allow for that.
The ideas are out there, but, the question is, will they really work? A couple of the biggest challenges for
Cullen and Smith are, as previously stated, to replicate the fine motor skills needed for the proper functioning of
the limb and to subdue any immunity attacks prone to happen. Its a big job- and thats an understatement as its
so much easier to talk about the future than to actually make the future! So, yes, the ideas are out there. Yes, the
research is being done. But will the ideas really work? That can only be seen through experimentation and
achievement.
As for practicality verses impracticality of ideas, many of Cullen and Smiths ideas have at least been
tried once. A good portion of them did work, which is sure sign of future success. For instance, already one
amputee was able to take a sip of her coffee, using a bionic arm and guiding the mug to her mouth with just her
thoughts! Its pretty amazing to think of all the things scientists have already discovered and achieved. On the
other hand, whether we can reach Star Wars technology standards or not is still a mystery.