Would You Have A Neural Implant?

Spectral Lines

We don't flinch (well, perhaps a little) at the thought of having cardiovascular implants like pacemakers, stents, and valves placed inside our chests to fix our broken hearts. We attach ourselves to dialysis machines, ventilators, colostomy bags and telemetric devices in order to stay in the game. So why do we shy away from implants that can revive or work around an injured or diseased nervous system by electrically stimulating the nerves or muscles?

Photo: Ed Mcdonald

The box at her waist enables Jennifer French to stand and walk.

As James Cavuoto explains in his report, "Neural Engineering's Image Problem," the answer isn't simple. For one thing, the controls for these nerve-stimulating devices, while shrinking in size, are still "black boxed" and worn outside the patient's body. For another, the quality of life they can restore to the patient is often limited. Perhaps there are also unfortunate associations from popular culture. How many of you think the word "cyborg" has a positive ring to it? When reading the words "electrical stimulation" and "nervous system," how many of you see Dr. Frankenstein screaming, "It's alive!"

And then there is the problem of getting the case for neural prostheses and electrical nerve stimulation heard above the clamor of biotechnology's proponents. Who wouldn't like to have "natural" biological methods for repairing the devastation of stroke and accident-induced paralysis, or the genetic misfiring of neuromuscular disease?

But whatever the case, the fact is that functional electrical stimulation devices work right now and are getting better all the time. As you can see from our photo of implant recipient Jennifer French, with her broad, beautiful smile, these devices have the ability to restore function, mobility, and independence. Further down the road, probably a lot further, they may even become part of a larger biomedical tool set that will be used to enhance our physical and mental abilities. They deserve a second look from those who thought they were only good as interim solutions or bioengineering curiosities.

Serious Fun at FIRST

As the Rover robots clambered over the Martian surface and sent back tantalizing evidence of ancient water there last month, thousands of high school students were gearing up for the regional finals of the FIRST ( F or I nspiration and R ecognition of S cience and T echnology) robotics competition. The brainchild of Dean Kamen, medical devices inventor, sultan of Segway, and archetypal maverick genius, the FIRST competitions aim to use robots to fire up high school students worldwide about science and technology. Participants build robots that compete in a "sports event" complete with frenzied, costumed fans and half-time festivities.

But FIRST is not just about building machines. It's about building teams and increasing community interest in technology. Competitors are judged, of course, on the versatility and endurance of their robots, but also on their own abilities to work together. They are encouraged to bring other students into the mix and get their schools' neighborhoods involvedin much the same way that a football team might raise money by putting on a car wash or might promote athletic activity by running a sports clinic for younger kids.

There has been a lot of discussion about the whys and wherefores of technology education. How do we get more young people to sign on? The inspiring regional FIRST matches that took place in March suggest that leading by example is a great way. In addition to the squads of rambunctious robogeeks, thousands of grown-ups--parents, teachers, engineers, machinists, software guys, friends--worked alongside the students in the robo pits or cheered wildly from the stands. They were engrossed and engaged, and they certainly gave off the impression that being a nerdy techie could also be way cool. Get involved (http://www.usfirst.org) at the grass roots. The FIRST Frenzy 2004 championship event is this month at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It's seriously effective. And seriously fun.

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