Prosthetic limb technology and elective amputation

Recently on the BBC World Service I followed a news article about a young man who decided to have his hand amputated in order to have a prosthetic version fitted. His hand had been damaged in a motorbike accident and was not fully functioning, but was however still attached to his arm.

His decision rather took me aback, here was a person choosing to improve the performance of a hand with a replacement. This is fundamentally different to fitting a prosthetic hand to a person that has either lost one or was born without one. The problem seems to be in the quality of prosthetic limbs.

A prosthetic hand

An example of a high technology prosthetic hand

Prosthetic limbs can be operated through the existing muscle system, for example they can be attached to existing muscles in the arm or by using electrical impulses. In this case the muscle use generates an electrical impulse that makes the hand move.

Scientists are currently testing a system that works directly from the brain. Implants register the brain’s impulses and send them directly to the hand. You think about the movement and the hand moves.

There is another advantage too, sensors in the fingers can send signals back to the brain so the user can actually feel the object they are touching.

All of this raises some questions, soon technology will provide us with a fully functioning prosthetic hand that the user controls directly with their brain. It will be hard wearing, reliable and you can touch hot things without burning yourself, it will in fact be better that a human hand.

People might then have elective amputation in order to get one. Who can make legal and ethical decisions about such an intervention? This argument also has implications for sport. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has recently qualified for the Olympic Games in London and will be competing with 2 prosthetic legs.

Oscar Pistorius - the fastest man on no legs

Nicknamed 'the fastest man on no legs' this is Oscar Pistorius in Greenwich London before next years Olympics

Here we are moving into a discussion about the confines of the human body, but also about enhancement. Maybe he even has an advantage over human legged athletes.

Have a look at Transcendent Man for a futurist view of how robotics and medicine in general might change humanity in the future.

Further discussion of the ethical and responsibility issues raised by scientific advancement and innovation can be found on the Bassetti Foundation website, including all the links relating to the stories above. I collaborate with the foundation and publish through their site.

Search engines are changing the way our memory works

A recent article in Science Mag suggests that the use of computers and the internet might actually be changing the way our memory works.

A series of psychology experiments recently carried out have shown that sometimes, when people were presented with hard to answer questions, they began to think of computers.

If participants believed that it would be easy to find answers on Google later, then they had poorer recall of the actual answer, and yet a greater memory of where the answer was stored.

A head x-ray showing someone with a computer for a brainThe researchers said that the internet acts as a tool which we now depend upon to to aid our memories, by remembering some data for us.

Here is the abstract for the journal entry

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

In more simplified English, what this is basically saying is that it is now much easier to access data online, mainly thanks to search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo. If we have a question, we can find the answer in seconds.


This has lead the the human brain associating the thought of a problem with computers, as it believes that the internet will be the source of the solution. Search engines are now embeded so much in our brain, that when we think of a problem, we no longer bother trying to work out the answer for ourselves, but instead we associate the possibility of finding the solution of the problem with a search engine.

Let’s be honest, who hasn’t been bugged by something, asked someone else who also wasn’t able to help and as a result was either told “Google it” or thought “I could Google that”? I have, in fact I would say it happens on a weekly basis!

Question time

So what do you think? Are computers, the internet and search engines making us stupid, or is it just that we are now adapting as a race to more efficient ways of finding out information?

What do we need to know about nanotechnology?

As you may already know, nanosciences innovative advances encompass technology, medicine and manufacturing and so affect our world to more and more of an extent. Some in the scientific community are hesitant to endorse the developments and wonder about the consequences of these advances.

However, fascination surrounding this field, and lets not forget excitement over the potential for profit, is at the forefront and pushing nanoscience forward.

Nano-Imaging

When we think of a nanometer, we need to wrap our minds around the fact that this is a measurement of a substance 100,000 times smaller than a single human hair. Before any form of mass production using these substances is in place, researchers need to accurately image them to learn of their topography and composition. Observation of nanomaterials is achieved by impressively powerful microscopes. The atomic force microscope (AFM) provides for extremely high (nanometer) resolution.

Nanotechnology being used in medicine

Nanotechnology being used to modify red blood cells

Today we hear of many developments and new manners of operation devised for the AFM paving the way for serious strides in nanotechnology. Therefore, with advances in nano-imaging comes progressive research and subsequent manufacturing which has benefits as well as potential risks.

First of all, industry, research bodies and governments are not aware of the amount of nanomaterials being produced. Without knowing these amounts, how is it possible to know the amount of potential exposure and therefore risks?

Does the law protect us now?

Governments do have regulations and guidelines but new materials like these have proven difficult to classify and sometimes are grouped together with already existing materials and so not independently classified at all. Other countries are already climbing aboard the nanotechnology bandwagon in a big way and governments need to properly regulate the importation of products containing these materials. How much to regulate leads to much discussion. The “bottom line” question needs to be answered…. “Is nanotechnology going to do more harm than good?”

All in all, the most basic risk assessments cannot be made because of a lack of information. Without appropriate analysis, we cannot have adequate laws.

What are our concerns?

Communities are becoming more ‘green’ in their approach to environmental issues. Concerns are valid over the potential these substances have to contaminate our water supplies or potentially harm plants and animal populations. After all, environmental sustainability is the only option and so, industry must always remain accountable.

The potential risks to human health and the environment differ greatly from risks associated with conventional materials which exhibit different characteristics.

Scientists are at work to increase their understanding of how nanomaterials interact with biological systems such as cell membranes so as to minimize any adverse effects. However, nanomaterials are still marketed commercially by the ton. They are in our cosmetics, sunscreens and lotions, car wax, paints and clothing. As research progresses and findings can be marketed in products, the list grows. The threat of potential toxicity of nanomaterials entering our tissues and cells exists and there could be real health implications.

Industry cannot allow for health, environmental or ethical concerns to decrease or halt the progress of nanotechnology. There is an agenda here – in the end it is much to do with a fat wallet.

Developments in this field are exciting but at what cost?
The point here is, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask the questions that matter.

For further reading, check out my article on nanotechnology on my site Microscope Master. Links in my bio.