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Lest We Forget

November 12, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

Photo by Benoit Aubry of Ottawa

Whether you call it Remembrance Day, Veterans Day, or Armistice Day, November 11th is the day we honour those who bravely fought in wars past and present. But for reasons both ideological and logistical, wars fought in the past are very different from those going on today. In modern warfare, a new problem has emerged - a good problem that is also being put to good use.

With improvements in intelligence, protection, and medicine, more soldiers are living through assaults they likely wouldn't have 40 years ago. Repairing broken bodies and minds has become a specialty in military medicine, and the necessity for innovation in the theatre of war has led us to an interesting point: most of the human body is now essentially... replaceable.

Artificial limbs are basically as old as sticks, but the latest models can be moved by thought alone. Future versions may use artificial skin designed for touch-sensitive robots to give the wearer the ability to feel again. There's much more than just replaceable appendages, however. Permanent artificial hearts are now a reality. Two patients from Germany recently had their sight restored by retinal implants. Muscle and tendon could soon be replaced by synthetic polymers that respond to electrical signals delivered through an implanted chip.

But the most impressive of all new prosthetic devices, in my opinion, is the prosthetic memory. A researcher named Dr. Theodore Berger is leading a project to create the first neural prosthesis, a set of microchips that would mimic the action of the hippocampus, a structure within the brain crucial for making new memories. The idea is to create a bypass over the damaged area, lining up the broken connections using an array of electrodes. Testing is underway in rats, with the first human trials expected in the next four years. If successful, these implants will give those with severe memory loss - military and civilian alike - a life again.

 



I'm not a proponent of war, but I'm all for accomplishing good during a bad situation.

Lest we forget.

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