Bionics: A Step into the Future

Advances in bionics have already had a huge impact on patients’ lives. Vision, hearing, orthopedics and implants that augment cardiac and neurological functions are the current landscape, with extreme potential to grow.

Hollywood blockbusters and science fiction novels have set the expectations for bionics extremely high. While we haven’t quite recreated The Six Million Dollar Man, advances in bionics have already had a huge impact on patients’ lives. Bionic implants refer to electronic or mechatronic parts that augment or restore physical functionality to a differently-abled person. The bionics industry has grown along four major application areas: vision, hearing, orthopedics and a small, motley group of implants that augment cardiac and neurological functions.

Vision Bionics

The bionic eye—or visual neuro prosthesis, as vision bionics are sometimes called—are bioelectronic implants that restore functional vision to people suffering from partial or total blindness. Researchers and device manufacturers who are designing bionic eyes confront two important challenges: the complexity of mimicking retinal function and the consumer preference (and constraint) for miniature devices that can be implanted into the eye. Despite these challenges, the vision bionics market segment is teeming with device prototypes and some commercialized products as well.

One of the most prominent companies in this space is Second Sight Medical Products of Sylmar, Calif. Second Sight’s Argus II prosthesis consists of a microelectronic array that is implanted in the retina, a wearable camera and an image processing unit. The camera, integrated into eyeglasses, captures images and transmits them to the portable processing unit, which wirelessly sends electrical signals to the implanted array. The array, in turn, converts these signals into electrical impulses that stimulate the retinal cells that connect to the optic nerve. Argus II thus acts as the crucial link between the object and the optic nerve, bypassing the damaged photoreceptors (as in the case of retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative ocular disease). 

A similar process is being leveraged by the Bionic Vision Australia research consortium, France-based Pixium Vision and German company Retinal Implant AG in their bionic eye prototypes. 

Auditory Bionics

Cochlear implants, auditory brainstem implants and auditory midbrain implants are the three main classes of neuroprosthetic devices for people suffering from profound hearing loss. Auditory bionics create an artificial link between the source of sound and the brain—in this case, with a microelectronic array implanted either in the cochlea or the brain stem. 

Auditory bionics is more mature as a technology than vision bionics, with a larger innovation ecosystem, more commercial products, and greater adoption globally. The market is dominated by Cochlear Limited (Australia); Advanced Bionics (United States), a division of Sonova; MED-EL (Austria); and a collection of smaller, regional companies. 

Orthopedic Bionics

According to the World Health Organization, more than 1 billion people (approximately 15% of the world’s population), are living with some form of physical disability, and about 190 million adults have a major functional difficulty. Orthopedic bionics are designed to restore motor functionality (not necessarily sensory functionality) to the physically challenged. Bionic limbs are replacing prosthetic limbs, which were standard fare for more than 100 years. Despite notable innovations that resulted in lighter devices and better designs, prosthetic limbs did not provide the necessary functional restoration that bionic devices now do.

A bionic limb is interfaced with a patient’s neuromuscular system for limb control—flexing, bending and grasping—using the brain. A similar functional pathway exists here: The damaged peripheral nerves are bypassed and a new electronic pathway connects the mechatronic limb with the brain. 

Ottobock (Duderstadt, Germany) holds the distinction of creating the world’s first completely microprocessor-controlled lower limb prosthesis system. The market leader in lower limb bionics now is working on developing ultralight bionic limbs that can function without an external energy source. A testament to its leadership in this space is the fact that it has been the official partner of the Paralympic Games for more than two decades. Newer players such as Open Bionics and Touch Bionics (both UK-based start-ups), Martin Bionics (Oklahoma City, Okla.) and AlterG (Fremont, Calif.), have energized the market with various product offerings—from low-cost technology to robotics-assisted limbs and computer-enabled vision devices. 

Bionics – The Road Ahead

A relative new space in the bionics industry is robotic exoskeletons. As the name indicates (and as popularized in “Iron Man” films and comic books), these are electromechanical structures that patients wear to benefit from “motorized muscles.” These powered suits help patients who have limited or no muscle control walk, lift and generally be mobile. Exoskeletons are promising innovations that are expected to make a huge impact in the rehabilitation of patients who have suffered strokes or spinal injuries, and those who suffer from degenerative neuromuscular diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The buzz around robotic exoskeletons, which have also found favor in industrial applications because of their ability to augment physical abilities, indicates that we are moving towards a human-machine hybrid. Who knows: We may indeed live to see a six-million-dollar man in our lifetime—and what’s more, he may not cost us $6 million.

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