Glucose Fuel Cell Could Power Implants To Help Paralyzed Patients Move, MIT Scientists Say
Image Credit: Meninges and Vascular Anatomy courtesy of the Central Nervous System Visual Perspectives Project, Karolinska Institutet and Stanford University.
By: InnovationNewsDaily Staff
Published: 06/13/2012 12:46 PM EDT on InnovationNewsDaily
Cockroaches, snails and clams have already become living batteries as experimental cyborgs. A new MIT fuel cell could extend that futuristic idea to humans by drawing its power from the fluid surrounding the human brain.
The fuel cell can already make enough power for low-power brain implants — devices that could eventually help paralyzed patients move their legs and arms again. MIT researchers made the fuel cell out of silicon and platinum so that it can last for years with a low risk of provoking the body’s immune response.
“The glucose fuel cell, when combined with such ultra-low-power electronics, can enable brain implants or other implants to be completely self-powered,” said Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT.
MIT’s fuel cell mimics the role of the human body’s enzymes by breaking down glucose sugar into energy. The glucose in the brain’s cerebrospinal fluid represents a continuous fuel supply for the fuel cell — even if the fuel cell currently generates just hundreds of microwatts (one microwatt is equal to one millionth of a watt).
Scientists had already shown they could power a heart pacemaker with glucose fuel cells in the 1970s, but they gave up on the idea because such fuel cells used biological enzymes that eventually wore out. MIT’s fuel cell avoids that problem by relying on nonbiological materials. [Cyborg Snail Turned into Living Battery]
“It’s a proof of concept that they can generate enough power to meet the requirements,” said Karim Oweiss, an associate professor of electrical engineering, computer science and neuroscience at Michigan State University.
A next step for MIT involves showing how well the fuel cell works in living animals, Oweiss said. Other researchers have already shown how small creatures such as cyborg clams and cyborg snails can refuel implanted fuel cells with their own bodies.
Sarpeshkar’s MIT lab previously worked on implantable devices that bridge the gap between brain and machine — recording and decoding nerve signals, stimulating nerves, or communicating wirelessly with brain implants. But medical implants capable of harvesting energy from a person’s own bodily fluids remain years away.
“It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care, but those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell,” said Benjamin Rapoport, a former graduate student in the Sarpeshkar lab and the first author on the new MIT study.
The study is detailed in the June 12 online edition of the journal PLoS One.
9 Cyborg Enhancements Available Right Now
Medicine has made many recent advancements in repairing the human body and treating such disorders as blindness, deafness and missing limbs. Evolving technologies, many of them available right now, involve implants or wearable devices. They give their users a bionic appearance — an indicator of cyborg technology still to come. Here are some of the new developments, one of them strictly for art’s sake:
Two California research groups have each created artificial skin, using different approaches. Researchers at Stanford University based their skin on organic electronics (electronics made from conductive carbon-based polymers, plastics, or small molecules) and have created a device 1,000 times more sensitive than human skin.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley used integrated arrays of nanowire transistors to develop their skin.
The goal of both research groups was to create something that mimics human skin while capable of being spread over large, flexible surfaces.
These highly sensitive artificial skins will give prosthetics a sense of touch, give surgeons finer control over tools, and give robots the ability to pick up delicate objects without breaking them.
In addition, researchers from the Cincinnati Shriners Hospital for Children are working on developing an artificial skin that has bacteria-resistant skin cells, which would reduce the risk of infection.
Everyone at some point could use an eye in the back of the head, but visual artist Wafaa Bilal has taken that to a whole new level. Bilal has had a 2-inch-wide, 1-inch thick digital camera (5 by 2.5 centimeters) implanted in the back of his head as part of his newest art project, for a new museum in Doha, Qatar.
The process involved planting a titanium plate into Bilal’s head. The camera can be magnetically attached to the plate and is connected to a computer by a wire, which he carries around with him in a custom-made shoulder bag.
The plan was for the titanium plate to stay in place for a year and to record what goes on behind Bilal as he goes about his daily activities.
Recently, Bilal learned that his body has begun to reject a metal post holding the plate to his head, and will have to undergo surgery to have it removed. Despite this setback, he plans to continue by tying the camera to his head while he recovers.
German doctors in November were able to create a retinal implant that, in conjunction with a camera, enabled patients to see shapes and objects. One was even able to walk around a room by himself, approach people, read a clock face and distinguish between seven shades of gray.
Retinal implants are microchips with around 1,500 light sensors. They are attached underneath the retina at the back of the eye, and are linked by wire to a small external camera. The camera picks up light and sends the image in the form of an electrical signal to the implant via a processor unit.
The implant then feeds the data to the optic nerve, which leads from the eyeball to the brain. What the brain receives through the optic nerve is a tiny image, 38 pixels by 40 pixels, each of pixels brighter or dimmer according to the light that falls on the chip.
Researchers had worked on the project for seven years and say that it shows how visual functions can be restored to help blind people in everyday life.
The goal of the SmartHand Project is to create a replacement hand that is as close to the lost one as possible, and researchers are well on their way to achieving it.
The SmartHand is a complex prosthesis with four motors and 40 sensors. Researchers from various European Union countries have designed the hand so that it directly connects to the wearer’s nervous system, allowing the wearer to develop realistic motion and a sense of touch.
The SmartHand works off the sensation of a phantom hand that many with missing limbs experience. This gives wearers the impression that the SmartHand is really part of their body. The device still has a ways to go, but the first recipient of one, Swedish patient Robin af Ekenstam, can pick up objects and feel the fingertips of the prosthesis.
SmartHand scientists eventually plan to cover the prosthesis with artificial skin that will give the brain even more tactile feedback. The researchers said they will study SmartHand recipients to understand how to improve the device over time.
Nerve signals via Internet
In a precursor of the SmartHand, Kevin Warwick of the University of Reading in the United Kingdom used cybernetics to control a mechanical hand connected to his nervous system while he was in New York and the hand was in England.
Warwick had an implant wired into his nervous system in 2002, enabling him to remotely control the robotic hand. The signals were sent over the Internet through a radio transmitter. This process is what gave researchers the information to develop Smart Hand Project.
Prosthetics have come a long way in recent years, including hands that enable wearers to feel and legs that make it possible to run long distances. Now we may have prosthetic tentacles that would allow wearers to get a better grip on objects.
Recent University of Washington grad Kaylene Kau designed an arm as part of a design project to develop an alternative to the prosthetic arm most commonly used today.
Kau’s arm is flexible and adjustable, with a grip that can change to best accommodate the shape of the object the wearer wants to grasp. The amount of curl in the arm is controlled by two buttons mounted on the prosthesis; they direct a motor to either increase or decrease curl via two cables running the length of the arm.
Cochlear implants are the step beyond hearing aids for the hearing-impaired. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sounds so they may be detected by damaged ears, cochlear implants bypass the damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve.
Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound.
Various types of cochlear implants have been developed, but all have a few things in common: a microphone that picks up the sound, a signal processor that converts the sound into electrical signals, and a transmission system that sends the electrical signals to the electrode implanted in the cochlea.
Electrode buffer – Neural Implants
Researchers are working on a process to integrate medical devices with a patient’s body more seamlessly.
Implants into the brain or other parts of the nervous system are becoming quite common in medical procedures. Devices such as cochlear implants and deep brain simulators use electrodes implanted in the brain to work. But while these devices can vastly help their users, researchers are worried the metal electrodes could damage soft tissue.
Scientists from the University of Michigan are working to develop a conductive polymer coating (molecules that can safely transmit electric currents) that will grow around an electrode in the brain, creating a buffer to better protect surrounding brain tissue.
They hope to do this by peppering the material with small amounts of another polymer; scientists have been able to coax the conductive polymer into forming a hairy texture along the electrode.
5 Reasons to Fear Robots
Jeremy Hsu, InnovationNewsDaily Senior Writer
Real robot names such as Roomba and Asimo don’t evoke as much fear as the fictional “Terminator.” But consider that Roomba, the automated vacuum cleaner, is manufactured by iRobot, creator also of armed robot warriors for the U.S. military. And Asimo represents just the first wave of an incoming tsunami of robots that strive to look and act eerily human.
It goes beyond automated vacuums and mildly entertaining dance-bots. Japan and Korea plan to deploy humanoid robots to care for the elderly, while the United States already fields thousands of robot warriors on the modern battlefield. Meanwhile, plenty of people have enhanced their bodies technologically in ways that bring them closer to their robotic brethren.
So it’s OK to become a bit of a paranoid android, because many experts say that the robotic future is rapidly approaching, if not already here. Robots probably won’t completely take over or annihilate the human race anytime soon, but they may supplant us by other means — and LiveScience is here to count the reasons why you need not hide your fear of the metal ones.
Robots Steal Our Hearts
Robots don’t need to take over by force, if humans have already fallen for their cute, clumsy antics.
Blame the human brain for allowing toddlers and soldiers alike to feel warm fuzzy feelings for robots.
People are hardwired to perceive faces and get emotional about almost everything, whether it’s a stuffed animal or a car.
However, robots still have to navigate one tricky obstacle of the mind — the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon where a robot looks almost human, save for a bizarre twitch or stutter or glassy-eyed stare which can creep people out.
Many researchers currently try to bypass the issue by simply designing robots to look less human, and retain that clunky robotic cuteness.
Humans May Prefer Robot Lovers
Experts aren’t wondering if humans will ever make love to robots — they’re already discussing what happens when that day comes.
It may sound snicker-worthy, but consider that many people have had online relationships that get pretty intimate through Internet chat rooms and participate in socially intense massively multiplayer online games for years.
A flesh-and-steel robot that feels, looks and sounds like a human would have even greater appeal, robotics researchers say.
And if history serves as any guide, you don’t need the perfect Stepford Wife to tempt spouses or significant others into a little robotic addiction and strain existing human relationships.
Robots Take Our Jobs
Anything you can do, they can do better. Well, lots of things, anyway.
Modern humans have not gone obsolete just yet, but robots have already found their place as space explorers that can endure harsh environments off and on Earth.
They have also brought their tireless efficiency to everything from assembly line work to humdrum gene sequencing in labs, and have appeared in growing numbers on real-life battlefields — although the latter can lead to the different problem if robots stage a rebellion, or even just have a weapons malfunction.
For now, robots complement rather than replace elements of the human workforce and armed forces due to limits on their intelligence. But they’re evolving quickly, and a few have even begun tinkering with science themselves.
Robot Insurrection: Kill All Humans
A scenario where machines rise up against their makers presents perhaps the least appealing convergence of science fiction and real life. That doesn’t mean preliminary signs of an incipient insurrection don’t exist, though.
Thousands of drones and ground robots have been deployed by many nations, and particularly the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An automatic antiaircraft gun killed human soldiers on its own when it malfunctioned during a South African training exercise. Military researchers refer to “Terminator” scenarios, and seriously discuss how armed robots are changing the rules and ways of modern war.
If that’s not enough to make you a bit leery, consider that Great Britain has established a network of satellites for the purpose of coordinating all those drones and other military assets.
It shares the same name as a certain villainous artificial intelligence that dominates the “Terminator” movies — Skynet.
Your Grandkids Will Be Robots
Whether humans and robots fight or make love, the most probable scenario involves marching toward a convergence point in the future.
On one hand, humans continue to add more technological gizmos and tiny computers to their daily wear.
You can already see many such 21st-century cyborgs playing around with their iPhones, or staring off into the distance with earbuds piping music into their heads. Artificial limbs, organs and bionic eyes? Check.
Coming from the other direction, robots have steadily improved in almost every possible way: walking, talking and learning.
Man and machine increasingly look alike, and at some point the difference may not exist. But on a brighter note, humans won’t worry so much about robots once they’ve merged with them. See you on the other side.
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