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Short History of Bionics

Bionics, in the field of medicine, means the replacement or enhancement of organs or other body parts by mechanical versions. It is the technique of replacing a limb or body part by an artificial limb or part that is electronically or mechanically powered. This artificial body part is embedded in the nervous system such that it responds to commands from the brain. ‘Neural Prosthetics’ is the scientifically appropriate term for these devices, but scientists have become more comfortable with the term- ‘Bionics’, made popular by science fiction writers.

Research in Bionics began long before it solidified as an organized academic field of study. In 1973, University of California, Los Angeles, computer scientist Jacques Vidal observed modulations of signals in the electroencephalogram of a patient and wrote in Annual Review of Biophysics and Bioengineering: “Can these observable electrical brain signals be put to work as carriers of information in man-computer communication or for the purpose of controlling such external apparatus as prosthetic devices or spaceships?” While we don’t yet have mind-controlled spaceships, neural control of a prosthetic device for medical applications is now becoming commonplace in labs around the world.

The earliest example of bionics can be a bionic ear- a multi-channel cochlear implant which allows the recipient to hear by mimicking the function of the cochlea, was first used in 1978.

Then in 1987 a patient with advanced Parkinson’s disease is fitted with a deep-brain electrical stimulation implant.

Also in 2000 an artificial silicon retina is implanted into a human eye. The artificial retina is made from silicon microchips which contain thousands of tiny light-converting units.

In 2001 amputee Jesse Sullivan receives a fully robotic arm developed by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The arm has a nerve muscle graft which allows him to use his own thoughts to move the artificial limb.

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