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From Bionics to Biohacking: How New Medical Technology is Making the Impossible Possible

By Kristeen Cherny, PhD
Medically reviewed by Jenneh Rishe, RN
The 1980 Star Wars film “The Empire Strikes Back” was an epic space opera, but it also foreshadowed the future of healthcare. The scene at the end of the movie shows Luke Skywalker getting outfitted with a prosthetic hand to replace the one he lost in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader.

Complete with flesh and fingerprints, Luke’s prosthesis looked no different than any other human hand from the outside. But it was powered by pistons and a circuit board hidden behind a panel in his forearm, allowing him to move his fingers, wield his lightsaber, and (spoiler alert!) ultimately defeat the Galactic Empire.

Four decades later, lightsabers are still the stuff of sci-fi, but robotic hands like Luke’s are just one of many once-futuristic healthcare technologies that have become reality. In fact, you don’t have to travel to a galaxy far far away to find cutting-edge implants, smart pacemakers, and bionic organs — they’re right here on planet Earth. 

Here are a few of the coolest new healthcare technologies helping make the impossible possible for people with certain diseases and disabilities.

Brain and Spine Implants

For diseases that cause uncontrollable movements, such as Parkinson’s disease, people had few options until scientists in the 1990s began experimenting with a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS). Think of it like a cardiac pacemaker, but for the brain.

For the treatment, a surgeon inserts thin electrodes (wires) into specific areas of the brain that control movement. The surgeon then connects the electrodes to a battery-operated device and implants it beneath the collarbone. The device, which can be turned off or on with a remote control, then sends electrical pulses to the brain. 

Research from 2021 shows that DBS offers significant long-term benefits for people with Parkinson’s disease, including the reduction of dyskinesia (involuntary movements) by 75 percent and a boosted quality of life. The study also found that DBS reduced the need for certain Parkinson’s medications by nearly 51 percent.

In addition to treating certain conditions, high-tech implants may also hold the power to curb serious public health concerns — like the opioid epidemic.

DBS doesn’t just help Parkinson’s disease, though. It’s also approved to treat epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other movement disorders. 

As technology evolves, creating breakthroughs in battery designs and on-demand stimulation, DBS is expected to become even more effective. It may also be used to treat other types of conditions. Research looking at whether DBS implants could treat depression and dystonia in children with cerebral palsy is currently underway.

In addition to treating certain conditions, high-tech implants may also hold the power to curb serious public health concerns — like the opioid epidemic

More specifically, researchers have developed small, thin devices (microelectrodes) that can be placed in the brain to combat severe pain. They work by blocking pain signals from reaching the cerebral cortex, ultimately silencing the sensation of pain.

A key 2021 study describes the use of these microelectrodes on rats. Researchers found significant changes in pain signals, along with positive behavioral changes. And unlike prescription opioid medications, the devices appeared to cause no side effects, potentially paving the way for safer treatments for chronic pain. 

The findings are promising, but further study on humans will need to take place before microelectrodes become available for you and me. 

In the meantime, researchers continue to investigate advanced remedies for chronic pain to help minimize opioid dependence. For example, spinal cord stimulation may help treat severe chronic back pain with the help of an implantable pacemaker-like device that’s connected to a remote control. 

The implant is placed beneath a person’s skin, usually in the abdomen or near the buttocks. They can then use a remote control to send electrical impulses to the spinal cord when they’re feeling pain. 

This changes the way the brain senses pain, replacing that sharp or achy discomfort with a more tolerable tingling sensation, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Some of the newest spinal cord stimulation devices even offer “sub-perception stimulation” — in other words, pain you can’t even feel.

Bionic Eyes

Bionic eyes (retinal prostheses) are allowing people with no visual function in their eyes to see shapes and movement — a potential game-changer for maintaining independence. 

They work through two components: electrode implants surgically placed on top of each retina and a camera embedded into a pair of special glasses. The electrodes and camera work together to transmit information the brain can process as visual data. 

Today, bionic eyes have been implanted in roughly 500 people with profound vision loss, largely from a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP)

In the future, it’s possible that bionic eyes could offer color vision and more acute sight capabilities.

But in the coming years, the treatment may become an option for more common conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration, which is projected to affect some 5.4 million Americans by 2050. 

The technology is still far from perfect. It doesn’t reverse blindness but instead allows a person to detect some shapes, objects, and movements. Scientists are continuing to develop bionic eyes in hopes of improving their effectiveness and treating other causes of vision loss. 

They’ve already started experimenting with implanting visual prosthesis devices directly onto blind people’s brains, helping them regain parts of their vision. 

Researchers are also trying to find ways to advance this technology so that it may be able to simulate the complexity of the retina and neural systems. In the future, it’s possible that bionic eyes could offer color vision and more acute sight capabilities, which could open doors to treating other eye problems.

In addition to treating certain conditions, high-tech implants may  hold the power to curb serious public health concerns — like the opioid epidemic.

More specifically, researchers have developed small, thin devices (microelectrodes) that can be placed in the brain to combat severe pain.

They work by blocking pain signals from reaching the cerebral cortex, ultimately silencing the sensation of pain.

A key 2021 study describes the use of these microelectrodes on rats. Researchers found significant changes in pain signals, along with positive behavioral changes.

Unlike prescription opioid medications, the devices appeared to cause no side effects, potentially paving the way for safer treatments for chronic pain.



‘Smart’ Pacemakers

Need to adjust your pacemaker? There’s an app for that — and it’s a huge step up from the early pacemakers of the 1960s and 1970s, which were connected to a machine outside the body and could only be set at one rate. 

From the beginning, pacemakers were designed to regulate abnormal electrical signals in the heart, such as those linked to a heart blockage or arrhythmias. These abnormalities can result in an unusually slow or fast heart rate. 

The devices, which are now as small as a nickel, contain a pulse generator with a battery and tiny circuit. When connected to the heart with one or more wires, the pacemaker sends out electrical impulses that help regulate the heartbeat. 

While pacemakers have existed since 1958, scientists continue to modify the technology to create ever smaller, more effective devices. Today, the devices include “smart” technology that allows you to check your heart rhythm on a linked app. 

Biological pacemakers placed in genes or cells are also underway. That could mean highly personalized treatment for cardiac conditions.

The early detection of abnormal heart rhythms while wearing a pacemaker could potentially be lifesaving. 

Still, a “smart” pacemaker isn’t designed to replace regular or emergency visits to your cardiologist. It simply provides more information on what’s going on with your heart that could be used in making decisions about your care. 

And research has shown that people who do use the smart features of this type of device tend to be more on top of their overall condition. 

There’s also the potential possibility of sharing your pacemaker data with a healthcare professional through the app, which could help make virtual appointments with doctors more effective. 

In the future, researchers would like to find ways to eliminate batteries and other hardware from pacemakers, making next-gen devices last much longer than today’s devices. They currently need to be replaced every 5 to 7 years.

According to those same researchers, biological pacemakers placed in genes or cells are also underway. That could mean highly personalized treatment for cardiac conditions in the future.

Robotic Limbs

Early artificial limbs used to be little more than aesthetic accessories, designed to hide the fact that someone was missing a limb. Their functionality was limited at best.

But today, researchers are developing high-tech limbs that not only allow people to move around and take care of daily tasks more easily, but also control their prostheses with their minds. 

Through the use of sensors implanted in a person's nerves or muscles, it could be possible for a person to communicate with a prosthetic the same way we communicate with functional limbs, just by thinking about moving it.

Right now, advanced prosthetic limbs can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But 3D printing can speed up manufacturing time and offer researchers and everyday folks access to highly personalized prosthetics at a fraction of the cost.

In research from 2021, a person paralyzed from the neck down was able to receive tactile feedback from a bionic arm after receiving an implant that stimulates the part of the brain responsible for processing tactile information from the body. 

Researchers are also developing motorized hands that could potentially connect with tiny sensors implanted in the brain or small electrodes attached to nerves. If successful, these systems would allow people to make precise movements with their hands and fingers with their minds. 

Legs can be tricky to research, as the pricey prosthetics need to be designed to support a person’s body weight safely, but a new open-source bionic leg design has recently become available. That may make it easier for scientists to create more advanced leg prosthetics using brain sensors down the road. 

While research is still emerging, there are many other recent studies and trials into the use of various technologies to make bionic prosthetics a reality. 

It’s also worth noting the power of 3D printing prosthetics. Right now, advanced prosthetic limbs can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But 3D printing can speed up manufacturing time and offer researchers and everyday folks access to highly personalized prosthetics at a fraction of the cost.

Genetic Engineering

Another field that could change healthcare is bio-engineering. Think of it as a precision scalpel for DNA and cells that could help our bodies fight off diseases or avoid ever getting them to begin with. 

Certain types of genetic engineering are already used in the treatment of cancers by manipulating immune cells called T cells to fight cancerous ones inside your body. 

This can be done through a technique called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cell therapy, which involves mixing T cells in a person’s blood with a specific virus that teaches those cells how to attack tumor cells. The engineered T-cells are placed back into the person’s body, where they’re deployed by the immune system to battle the cancer. 

Emerging research suggests that a similar process might eventually be used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases. Immunologists are also exploring ways genetic engineering may be able to manipulate immune cells to target inflammation early, before the disease progresses to a more widespread level.

While genetic engineering is not yet a mainstream treatment, the possible future implications could be endless. 

Think: Treatments designed to custom-match our genomes, the ability to snip genes that leave us predisposed to certain diseases, or even the creation of new genes written to replace defective ones in embryos. The possibilities are virtually endless.

Next Steps

As great as these breakthroughs sound, they come with one major downside: Many high-tech healthcare innovations are still in the research phase and not yet available to everyday people. 

Still, new treatments are always becoming available for the general public. Medical advancements happen every year, so if you’re living with a chronic disease or disability, you can: 

  • Ask your doctor about the latest treatments available.
  • Consider enrolling in clinical trials, which could give you the chance to try emerging treatments before they’re approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

No one can predict what’s ahead, but it’s safe to assume that we’re going to see once-unimaginable healthcare treatments and devices become more available in the coming years. 

That could mean longer lives and improved well-being for you, me, and everyone around the world. That’s a vision of the future we all can get on board with.

Sources

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