Bionics

Based on the 1972 novel Cyborg by Martin Caidin, the 70s TV show The Six Million Dollar Man featured the super-heroic exploits of Steve Austin, a bionic man given super strength, speed, and sight through the technological miracle of a bionic eye, bionic arm, and two bionic legs.

Steve Austin was not the first science fictional character to receive artificial parts. In the 1939 movie The Man They Could Not Hang, Boris Karloff plays Dr. Henryk Savaard, inventor of a mechanical heart that keeps him alive after he is hanged for murder. Greg Bear's Queen of Angels (1990) includes some involvement with cybernetics as does Frank Herbert's Destination Void (1966).

Recently researchers at MIT have developed "artificial muscles" composed of electronically conductive polymers. When electric signals are sent to the polymers, they contract, simulating the motion of a natural muscle - but with 100 times the strength. An article in Scientific American observes that these polymers "can be formed into artificial muscle to give ordinary folk super-human strength." One application in the works: a bionic sphincter that can restore urinary control to men whom prostate surgery has rendered incontinent.

British engineers are experimenting with a "bionic tooth" - an artificial tooth containing an implanted microprocessor. Their eventual goal is to weave computer circuitry directly into a person's living skin. The augmented skin would enable the person to directly access computer data and images.

A bionic spine offers new hope for patients with spinal injuries. In a laboratory experiment, injecting the polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) into dogs within three days of a spinal injury helped mend damaged nerves and improved their chance for a recovery. Of 19 dogs treated for paralysis caused when their spines ruptured, 68 percent regained the ability to walk.

Injecting the polymer helps patch holes in damaged cell membranes and fuses the membranes together. In an earlier experiment, PEG was shown to partially restore connections in guinea pigs whose spines were completely severed.

Nanotechnology is helping researchers at Purdue University create stronger artificial joints. The artificial joints provide a polymer matrix holding single-wall carbon nanotubes. Osteoblasts, the body's bone-forming cells, attach themselves to the nanotubes, which possess surface bumps as wide as 100 nanometers. The nanometer-scale bumps mimic the surfaces of proteins and natural tissues, enabling the osteoblasts to adhere better to the artificial joint, promoting the growth of new bone cells.