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Friday, March 22 , 2019, 5:45 am | Fair 44º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: Cyborgs and Quality of Life

I’ve never thought of myself as cyborg, but I guess I’m getting close. A cyborg (short for "cybernetic organism") has both organic and biomechanical parts, according to Wikipedia. ”The term cyborg is often applied to an organism that has restored function or enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component or technology that relies on some sort of feedback.”

My road toward cyborg status began almost 20 years ago, on a backcountry ski trip in the Colorado Rockies. On the final day the conditions were icy. I fell a few times until suddenly my knee was excruciating. My friends carried my gear, but I still had to hike out a couple of miles through knee-deep snow. A few years later, after rehabilitation, more skiing and tennis, doctors replaced my anterior cruciate ligament, securing a strip of my own medial ligament with titanium screws.

Between young sports enthusiasts, aging athletes, and others who are just clumsy or unlucky, a healthy minority of my friends have artificial knees, shoulders or hips. Since those artificial parts have no feedback loop, they don’t qualify us for cyborg status. But others have achieved that status.

There are multiple ways to be a true cyborg today. Cochlear implants and robotic limbs perform well, using cues from a person’s brain to signal the mechanical part. Even fully functioning artificial hearts have been implanted successfully since 2004. These are examples of cyborg restorative technology: restoring lost functions, organs and limbs to allow a person to revert to a healthy level of function.

I recently read about research into placing chips or miniature wireless devices into the human body. The possibilities for these restorative, potentially life-changing devices range from measuring and correcting glucose levels in diabetics to functioning as an early warning system for arrhythmia.

One potential application is pain management. A miniature wireless device has been tested in mice that provides a way to study chronic pain. Those afflicted with chronic pain often suffer in silence, though some have become vocal advocates of marijuana dispensaries.

Stanford University’s Dr. David Clark thinks there’s a more humane way than addictive narcotics or surgery. A professor of anesthesiology and pain management, he treats patients with chronic pain in his medical practice. He writes, "Most people don't even achieve 50 percent pain control" by the traditional methods of narcotics and surgery.

His team uses a technique called optogenetics to develop a way of using light to control the activity of the neurons that transmit pain. One color of light stops the nerve from firing, preventing pain from occurring. Another color causes the nerve to fire.

The device isn’t yet available. The current research uses genetically engineered mice’s nerve cells, so we’ve got a ways to go before human testing. But it points to a future potential of restoring patients’ health and quality of life through a lower-pain future. It may also be an interesting development for those interested in enhanced, versus restorative, cyborg.

The enhanced cyborg is working not for restored function but for optimization: maximizing performance and minimizing energy input. Thus, the enhanced cyborg intends to exceed normal processes or even gain new functions that were not originally present. Not surprisingly, this has ethical implications beyond restorative cyborgs.

If technology advances as athletes strive for bigger and bigger gains, and baby boomers age, we may end up more and more artificial parts. At what point do we cease to be human? I’ll think about that with my original issue brain.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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