As we turn into this millennia’s second decade, Indigo takes a last look back at how science has developed since the turn of the century and speculates over what readers might hope to see in the years to come.
Developments over the last decade not only have the potential to give greater independence to paraplegics but could affect how we all behave in our everyday lives. During the noughties, scientists made a number of small yet significant steps in the technological world, turning the sci-fi glamour of Hollywood from improbable dream into very possible reality.
While scientists at the University of Washington have been using neural implants to bypass damaged sections of the nervous system in the hopes of eventually restoring complete physical control to paralysed limbs, engineers at Duke University, Carolina have been exploring the practical applications of this work to create a wireless connection between brain and machine. A chip implanted in a lab monkey’s brain records the firing of neurons as it manipulates a cursor with a joystick to play a computer game. The monkey can later direct the cursor’s movements with only its thoughts, leaving the joystick aside untouched.
Since then, John Donoghue has led a team at Brown University, Rhode Island to develop a 100-electrode chip that has been implanted into a human known as MN. MN is paralysed from the neck down but with the BrainGate 1 technology, he not only used a robotic arm successfully but performed simple everyday tasks without using his limbs. This included operating a television, switching lights on and off and checking his e-mails. Although brain fluids had eroded the chip by the end of the trail, it seems fair to say that the power of acting by thought alone could soon be in a brain near you.
This will inevitably be taken one step further as robots become increasingly sophisticated and humans gain the ability to control these advanced computer-systems-cum-servants over vast distances with only the transmission of their brain signals. Two years ago, Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues at Duke University trained a rhesus monkey in the USA to control the movements of a robot in Kyoto, Japan. Using only her thoughts, Idoya watched the robot on a computer screen and directed it to walk and run on a treadmill. As engineers strive to create the ultimate artificial friend, the days of worrying whether you’ve locked the front door or left the gas on may soon be over if thought-controlled robots become the new household help.
Another exciting project that scientists have been working on is using synthetic skin to deliver gene therapies. In Maryland’s National Institute of Health, Jon Vogel’s attached a graft of cells onto the backs of lab mice. The genes they had included in the cell-matrix layers pumped atrial natriuretic peptide, a protein which dilates blood vessels and lowers blood volume, into the mice’s bloodstreams. As a result, the mice had a low blood pressure even after being placed on a high-salt intake diet. The implications of this could be immense with Vogel asking diabetes sufferers to “imagine insulin being released at a constant rate”, thereby removing the need for those with type 1 diabetes to inject after every meal. For the rest of us, gene therapy could be the step before drug storage, with each of us literally carrying a medical kit from adrenaline to Zovirax in their arms.
On the less physically invasive side, and something which may excite the Facebook fanatics out there, you may one day be able to keep your eye on your news feed at all times with the development by scientists at the University of Washington of a contact lens that contains a biologically-safe electronic circuit and lights. It would not be surprising if in the future, we could monitor our own heart-rates, zoom into objects in the distance or even have e-mails arriving in our eyes.
So Indigo readers, with the tensies before us and technology flourishing, let’s look forward to living the sci-fi dream.