The growth in any technology will oftentimes positively affect the development of any other technology. The advancement of research towards neuroprosthetics is constantly expanding; therefore, other fields of science and technology are developing because of this. Neuroprosthetics are a valuable technology and have the potential to affect many people’s lives as long as efforts continue in an attempt to improve it. This pertains to people in need of neuroprosthetics along with people who would benefit from other similar technologies. For this reason, there is a critical need for more research to be done in order to perfect neuroprosthetics.
Neuroprosthetics are a type of brain computer interface (BCI). A BCI requires a different brain output than that used to complete regular motor activities. This device focuses on the user’s intent in using brain activity in order to create a new form of communication (Moran et al.). This includes a communication between the brain and a prosthetic. The concept is simple; those who either lost their limbs or are no longer able to use them will be connected to a prosthetic (an artificial body part) that they can control with their mind to complete the tasks the person wants done. Currently, nearly all of the neuroprosthetics that are being researched are for arms because if this area of the body is negatively affected, it plays a more detrimental role in someone’s life. With this technology, losing the ability to use a typical human arm wouldn’t mean never being able to use an arm ever again. Neuroprosthetics give people the ability to yet again complete daily activities more easily such as picking up and putting down objects, along with driving. At the state in which the research is at, neuroprosthetics can be used to catch and throw a ball with high accuracy. However, the fingers cannot move one at a time and cannot move very quickly as a whole. Seeing that neuroprosthetics can give people the ability to go from a non-functioning arm to a highly technological functioning arm, they can aid in the betterment of many people’s lives. Neuroprosthetics are growing more popular and because of this, it is more realistic that it will become a commonplace technology.
Although mind control has been a fictional concept throughout history, the neuroprosthetic actually uses neural control to make the prosthetic complete the desired actions (Leuthardt). Signals from the brain travel through the nervous system and end up at the neuroprosthetic, causing it to move. Once the person thinks of how they want the arm to move, the brain sends a signal to the rest of the nervous system. The nervous system consists of neurons, which relay messages to one another throughout the body through chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters (Boeree). At the end of the cycle of neurons, the signal is sent through the skin to something outside of the body. This is where electrodes come in. Electrodes (connected to the neuroprosthetic) are threaded through the nerves in the stump and are stimulated in order to allow the prosthetic to receive the signal from the brain (Kwok). This gives the person the ability to cause activity within the prosthetic.
According to Marshall McLuhan, the medium in which something (or someone) is portrayed gives a greater message than the information within the medium itself (McLuhan 8). Whenever someone has a physical problem, it causes people to stare and oftentimes judge about his or her life. For example, seeing someone in public with a missing limb draws peoples’ attention towards that person and will sometimes make them feel sorry for the person because they seem to have a harder time in accomplishing daily activities. No matter the person’s personality, culture, or ideas, they are automatically viewed as “socially different” and put into a category of people with a similar appearance. People will be quicker to accept the message portrayed by others’ looks (a missing limb for example) than someone’s feelings about the situation. The neuroprosthetic can make others view them as more relatable, as they will be more likely to do everyday activities easier. Even though neuroprosthetics are out of the norm and people with them will still be labeled as “different,” the growth of this technology may bring about a growth in accepting people’s physical, emotional, and social differences.
Along with possibly changing the way society views them, people with neuroprosthetics will have their lives changed by being able to complete tasks they couldn’t before. As mentioned, neuroprosthetics will give people the ability to complete simple daily activities like taking a drink of water or catching a ball. Whether someone has a paralyzed part of their body, an amputated limb, or just have a hard time using their limbs, this technology can help them complete the tasks that have become difficult for them. This technology can also be used for people who have had strokes, but since the nerve pathways in stroke victim’s brains have been severed, the brain itself instead of the nerves within a limb must be activated (Kwok). This means the researchers have to mimic the signals within the limb or make the brain learn all new signals about what stimulation causes what reaction in the body. This shows that more research needs to be done because there are some people who would benefit from neuroprosthetics, but the technology has not yet been created to help them.
There are other reasons more research needs to be done; neuroprosthetics are imperfect in many ways. The reaction time of performing certain activities when using this technology is much less than when using a typical human arm. Neuroprosthetics lack the complexity of fully functioning limbs, like being able to type on a computer. Another complaint is that there is a lack of sensation to those using the prosthetic limb (when something touches it, the person has no way of knowing that it happened or what the object is unless they see it happen). These people do not have an accurate sense of differences in pressure, texture, or temperature (Kwok). This can cause difficulties because the person might not know how hard to hold an object to make sure they don’t damage it (they might break it if they hold it too tight or drop it if they don’t hold it tight enough). Research is, however, currently being done in order to make the prosthetics more high-tech and allow people to know more about what type of object they are holding or touching. Another difficulty with neuroprosthetics is that, like any other necessary technology, they might be too expensive for many people to be able to buy. This means that even if the technology is available, people who are in need of it will not be able to get ahold of it. Also, as this technology becomes more popular, the demand might be greater than the supply. This means that unless there are more people working in the field to create them, people who need them and are able to pay for them still might not be able to get them. Neuroprosthetics are still at an early age of development, meaning if someone were to invest in one now, there may be a breakthrough soon that would allow the neuroprosthetic to have more features and be more complex. Currently, the only people who are using neuroprosthetics are those who are participating in research (no one uses it on a daily basis yet due to the list of imperfections). There is a hope that with more research in how the brain and technology used to make neuroprosthetics work, neuroprosthetics can become more common and available to people. Once it comes to the point in time when neuroprosthetics will be used by the common member of society, these people will have to spend a lot of time and energy to get used to it and learn how to use it.
This shows that there is a potentially extremely beneficial future when it comes to neuroprosthetics, even though there is room for improvement. As mentioned, there is a lot of research that needs to be done to find out how to receive more complicated signals from the brain and relay them to the neuroprosthetics (which could cause someone to move their fingers, or have quicker reflexes). When advances are done in neuroprosthetics, this opens the door for growth in development of other scientific and technological aspects. For example, if messages can be sent from the brain to a neuron to an electrode to the neuroprosthetic, brain messages can possibly be sent to the outside world in other ways. People are able to concentrate and use their minds to move objects like neuroprosthetic hands that are not near them (and are even multiple states away from them). This means that a person doesn’t have to be directly connected to something in order to move it, which is already an advance in technology in the right direction. This concept opens up the question of mind reading. Even though mind reading is possibly a socially unethical idea, there are many benefits that could come out of it. There are people in the world with conditions in which they are unable to easily communicate with others. Being able to send thoughts to others can be extremely beneficial for some people. Another possible future concept is mind control. Even though this is also debatably unethical, if a person can mentally control a prosthetic arm, there might be a way for people to mentally control other objects in the world that they are not connected to in any way.
Neuroprosthetics could not have been created without the use of a multitude of subjects including biology, neuroscience, and engineering. This shows that people from many fields of study have to come together in order to accurately put together a technology with the greatest level of function. This collaboration and large amount of work sets an example for how research should be done in the future: by working together and sharing ideas in order to put something together that could help the greater good.
Currently, neuroprosthetics are still in an early age of development. The research being done includes testing out the technology to see what is still imperfect and what needs improvement. There is a dire need for this research to continue, because any breakthrough could positively affect the lives of thousands of people in the world. Whether or not a person is in need of a neuroprosthetic, this technology may benefit them in the long run (neuroprosthetic research may lead to research and development of other technologies). The future of neuroprosthetics holds an endless amount of potential development and improvement in the scientific society.
- Boeree, George. “Neurotransmitters.” General Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2015.
- Kwok, Roberta. “Neuroprosthetics: Once More, with Feeling.”Nature. Nature Publishing Group, 8 May 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
- Leuthardt, Eric C., Jarod L. Roland, and Wilson Z. Ray. “Neuroprosthetics.” The Scientist. N.p., 1 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
- McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore.The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Corte Madera, CA: Gingki, 2001. Print.
- Moran, Daniel, Jeffrey Ojemann, and Gerwin G. Schalk. “The Emerging World of Motor Neuroprosthetics: A Neurosurgical Perspective.” Neurosurgery 59.1 (2006): 1-14. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.