Prosthetic Hearts and Mind-Reading Computers

From KHouse.Org

Once upon a time human beings lived and died without questions about plugs and whether to pull them. Nobody worried about the cost of implanting prosthetic hearts. Mere generations ago, we didn’t understand exactly how genetic information was passed along, and now we can analyze genes and map them out one nucleotide letter at a time. We can locate problem sequences and even splice in a correction or two.

It may not be a brave new world, but it’s certainly a strange one. Bizarre technological wonders are taking place across the planet, and some are, possibly, for more good than others.

Brain Powered Music

Maltese engineers at an electronics-in-medicine conference in San Diego recently wowed their fellow researchers with a brain-reading computer interface that allows people to operate a digital music player just by gazing at boxes on a laptop screen. Kenneth Camilleri’s biomedical cybernetics team at the University of Malta has been working to give severely disabled people more control over their lives by developing technology that reads the electrical signals from their brains. Electrodes have to act as a go-between, placed in different locations on the head in order to catch the brain waves wafting through the skull. The computer doesn’t gaze into people’s souls. Not yet.

The laptop screen is set up with boxes that flicker at different frequencies, each representing a stereo button to be pushed. Turn up the volume. Start a new song. When the wearer-of-the-electrodes looks at each box, the electrodes detect the specific resulting signals from the brain. The laptop is set up to behave like a smart phone app, and people can reliably control the music player once it is calibrated to their specific brain wave patterns. Technology like this may soon benefit people who suffer paralysis or other impaired motor control.

Have a Heart

A French company successfully implanted an artificial heart in a man last month and announced that he had successfully survived the first 12 days without any intervention. A variety of devices have been developed in the past to help terminal heart patients hang on until they can get a heart transplant, but Carmat has developed something new; bioprosthetic hearts that can last for years, behaving as much like a living heart as currently technology allows. And it appears to be working.

“The artificial heart is functioning normally, automatically catering to the body’s needs without any manual adjustment necessary,” surgeons Alain Carpentier and Christian Latremouille said in a statement issued by the hospital.

Carmat hopes to help terminal patients who do not have a good chance of getting a heart transplant because of their age or perceived quality of life. Popping in a fully-functioning artificial heart offers these patients hope for a few more years of life without having to wait for a living human heart that might never show up.

New Dog Genes

Gene therapy has been used to treat mice and dogs with the animal version of X-linked myotubular myopathy, a serious disease that severely weakens skeletal muscles. Successful treatment of the critters offers hope for children who might otherwise die from this fatal genetic disorder.

In myotubular myopathy, a mutation in the MTM1 gene causes the nucleus of muscle cells to position at the center of the cell rather than near the periphery. Children born with the defect have feeble muscles, and lack of strength in the muscles responsible for breathing, often causing respiratory problems.

The January 22, 2014 issue of Science Translational Medicine describes recent experiments that use a virus to replace mutated genes in animals. An adenovirus vector was used to “infect” dogs and mice so that the virus could carry a good MTM1 gene throughout the body to replace the mutated version causing all the trouble. One single injection had success in transforming the animals’ muscular tissues, which showed marked strength increases and improved structure at the cell level.

“These results are the culmination of four years of research and show how gene therapy is effective for this genetic muscle disease,” said researcher Anna Buj-Bello, of Généthon in France. “We finally can envision a clinical trial in patients. These are very promising results for future trials in humans. ” The University of Washington, Boston Children’s Hospital, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA also participated in the study.

Technology continues to improve every year, offering new and unique methods to frustrate disability and illness and death. Human ingenuity and creativity produce a multitude of ways for one human to reach out a hand of mercy to help another. At the same time, our ability to produce technological innovations, to read brainwaves or sequence genomes, carries a weight of responsibility. If we can save lives or open up new worlds of hope for the living, then God bless our labor, but we need to use wisdom and caution, lest in our haste to heal, we create more than we bargained for. The mind-reading, genetically engineered cyborg zombies may not be on their way…

But then again…

Further Reading

  • Gene Therapy Leads To Robust Improvements In Animal Model Of Fatal Muscle Disease
    — University of Washington Medicine
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