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Alternative Knife for Plastic Surgery After Weight Loss

Medical-device manufacturers look to cash in by trimming the fat

3 min read

11 October 2007--A new clinical trial aims to determine whether using an ultrasonic scalpel--a blade that makes tiny vibrations thousands of times a second--could reduce the need for wound drainage following lower-body lifts, the most common side effect of a cosmetic-surgery procedure to remove excess skin from the thighs and buttocks. The recent increase in weight-loss surgeries has created a secondary demand for procedures like lower-body lifts, and an emerging market for companies that make surgical devices.

The clinical trial will compare an ultrasonic scalpel with the traditional technique, called electrocautery, in which surgeons send a current of electricity through the tissues being cut. The tissues heat up because of their resistance to the current, and the heat collapses and seals blood vessels to prevent bleeding. Ultrasonic scalpels produce heat through friction rather than an electric current--the scalpel relies on piezoelectric stacks that convert electricity into mechanical energy, causing the tip to oscillate between 55 and 90 micrometers side to side at a rate of 55 500 times per second.

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Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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