The next step in bionics

"And over repetition, it actually starts making you believe, in effect, I can do this,'" said Matt Murphy, vice president of engineering at Tibion Corporation.

"The whole intent is that after you've had your rehabilitation with the bionic leg on your leg, you would then, after the session, go home and begin putting more weight on that leg, that you actually have more confidence. It's like, 'Okay, I'm going to try a little bit more. I'm going to be a little bit more daring with this leg.' And over time, they actually get confidence back, that in fact, the leg is okay. They just have to use it more."

Clinical trials are beginning for a retinal implant - hardwired into the brain - that holds the promise of giving sight to the blind, enabling them to distinguish shapes, letters, items on a table, and maybe, with practice, faces of loved ones.

But the science of prosthetics is, increasingly, not just about improving the body as we know it, but bypassing OUR BODIES altogether - and connecting our brains to computers.

Dr. Anthony Ritaccio at Albany Medical Center in New York is developing a way to READ what is in the minds of epilepsy patients. It's called "synthetic telepathy."

"Language is just a motor task," said Dr. Ritaccio. "You're making a plan to intend to use muscles of articulation - your lips, your palate, your tongue. And that plan can be decoded. And if we can predict what word you're planning to say, you can intend it without speaking it.

"I think that's what we've been calling synthetic telepathy: the ability to communicate without formal language."

In experiments, Dr. Ritaccio and his colleagues have implanted sensors onto the surface of the brain. The sensors pick up on the patient's thoughts - which are electronically transmitted through a computer to manipulate a 3-D model of a hand, or even play video games.

Researchers at Dartmouth College have already used similar technology to make calls with an iPhone by just thinking about it.

"If we can tune in to intention, and we have the right software and we have the computational breadth of a computer, then people can fly planes by intending to fly a plane, without doing all the tedious chores of manipulating all the accelerators and flaps and landing gear," said Dr. Ritaccio.

Ritaccio's research connecting man to machine perhaps offers the greatest hope to people with spinal cord injuries.

"What we're saying is that the spinal cord is a conduit for intention. And if we just bypass that conduit and go right from brain intention to the muscles of articulation, right from intention to a prosthetic device or right from intention to a computer, then you don't need a spinal cord. And that transforms humanity."

All of which powers Amanda's drive to take that next step with her exo-skeleton. Amanda Boxtel calls herself a test pilot, and like any good test pilot, she sees not just what her eLegs can do now, but a very different future.

"What is it going to mean if a doctor no longer has to say, 'You'll never walk again'?" asked Petersen.

"I don't want to ever hear those words again, or to have a patient hear, 'You will never walk again,'" Boxtel said. "There's no reason to. Technology is upon us in our era. Looking forward to dancing, to hiking. Because you can. It's possible.

"Anything's possible."

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