If New Metal Legs Let You Run 20 Miles/Hour, Would You Amputate Your Own?
"Here's a question for you," I say to our dinner guests, dodging a knowing glance from my wife. "Imagine a future in which you could surgically replace your legs with robotic substitutes that had all the functionality and sensation of their biological counterparts. Let's say these new legs would allow you to run all day at 20 miles per hour without getting tired. Would you have the surgery?"
Why are we so married to the arbitrary distinction between rehabilitating and augmenting?
Like most people I pose this question to, our guests respond with some variation on the theme of "no way"; the idea of undergoing a surgical procedure with the sole purpose of augmenting performance beyond traditional human limits borders on the unthinkable.
"Would your answer change if you had arthritis in your knees?" This is where things get interesting. People think differently about intervention when injury or illness is involved. The idea of a major surgery becomes more tractable to us in the setting of rehabilitation.
Consider the simplistic example of human walking speed. The average human walks at a baseline three miles per hour. If someone is only able to walk at one mile per hour, we do everything we can to increase their walking ability. However, to take a person who is already able to walk at three miles per hour and surgically alter their body so that they can walk twice as fast seems, to us, unreasonable.
What fascinates me about this is that the three-mile-per-hour baseline is set by arbitrary limitations of the healthy human body. If we ignore this reference point altogether, and consider that each case simply offers an improvement in walking ability, the line between augmentation and rehabilitation all but disappears. Why, then, are we so married to this arbitrary distinction between rehabilitating and augmenting? What makes us hold so tightly to baseline human function?
Where We Stand Now
As the functionality of advanced prosthetic devices continues to increase at an astounding rate, questions like these are becoming more relevant. Experimental prostheses, intended for the rehabilitation of people with amputation, are now able to replicate the motions of biological limbs with high fidelity. Neural interfacing technologies enable a person with amputation to control these devices with their brain and nervous system. Before long, synthetic body parts will outperform biological ones.
Our approach allows people to not only control a prosthesis with their brain, but also to feel its movements as if it were their own limb.
Against this backdrop, my colleagues and I developed a methodology to improve the connection between the biological body and a synthetic limb. Our approach, known as the agonist-antagonist myoneural interface ("AMI" for short), enables us to reflect joint movement sensations from a prosthetic limb onto the human nervous system. In other words, the AMI allows people to not only control a prosthesis with their brain, but also to feel its movements as if it were their own limb. The AMI involves a reimagining of the amputation surgery, so that the resultant residual limb is better suited to interact with a neurally-controlled prosthesis. In addition to increasing functionality, the AMI was designed with the primary goal of enabling adoption of a prosthetic limb as part of a patient's physical identity (known as "embodiment").
Early results have been remarkable. Patients with below-knee AMI amputation are better able to control an experimental prosthetic leg, compared to people who had their legs amputated in the traditional way. In addition, the AMI patients show increased evidence of embodiment. They identify with the device, and describe feeling as though it is part of them, part of self.
Where We're Going
True embodiment of robotic devices has the potential to fundamentally alter humankind's relationship with the built world. Throughout history, humans have excelled as tool builders. We innovate in ways that allow us to design and augment the world around us. However, tools for augmentation are typically external to our body identity; there is a clean line drawn between smart phone and self. As we advance our ability to integrate synthetic systems with physical identity, humanity will have the capacity to sculpt that very identity, rather than just the world in which it exists.
For this potential to be realized, we will need to let go of our reservations about surgery for augmentation. In reality, this shift has already begun. Consider the approximately 17.5 million surgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2017 alone. Many of these represent patients with no demonstrated medical need, who have opted to undergo a surgical procedure for the sole purpose of synthetically enhancing their body. The ethical basis for such a procedure is built on the individual perception that the benefits of that procedure outweigh its costs.
At present, it seems absurd that amputation would ever reach this point. However, as robotic technology improves and becomes more integrated with self, the balance of cost and benefit will shift, lending a new perspective on what now seems like an unfathomable decision to electively amputate a healthy limb. When this barrier is crossed, we will collide head-on with the question of whether it is acceptable for a person to "upgrade" such an essential part of their body.
At a societal level, the potential benefits of physical augmentation are far-reaching. The world of robotic limb augmentation will be a world of experienced surgeons whose hands are perfectly steady, firefighters whose legs allow them to kick through walls, and athletes who never again have to worry about injury. It will be a world in which a teenage boy and his grandmother embark together on a four-hour sprint through the woods, for the sheer joy of it. It will be a world in which the human experience is fundamentally enriched, because our bodies, which play such a defining role in that experience, are truly malleable.
This is not to say that such societal benefits stand without potential costs. One justifiable concern is the misuse of augmentative technologies. We are all quite familiar with the proverbial supervillain whose nervous system has been fused to that of an all-powerful robot.
The world of robotic limb augmentation will be a world of experienced surgeons whose hands are perfectly steady.
In reality, misuse is likely to be both subtler and more insidious than this. As with all new technology, careful legislation will be necessary to work against those who would hijack physical augmentations for violent or oppressive purposes. It will also be important to ensure broad access to these technologies, to protect against further socioeconomic stratification. This particular issue is helped by the tendency of the cost of a technology to scale inversely with market size. It is my hope that when robotic augmentations are as ubiquitous as cell phones, the technology will serve to equalize, rather than to stratify.
In our future bodies, when we as a society decide that the benefits of augmentation outweigh the costs, it will no longer matter whether the base materials that make us up are biological or synthetic. When our AMI patients are connected to their experimental prosthesis, it is irrelevant to them that the leg is made of metal and carbon fiber; to them, it is simply their leg. After our first patient wore the experimental prosthesis for the first time, he sent me an email that provides a look at the immense possibility the future holds:
What transpired is still slowly sinking in. I keep trying to describe the sensation to people. Then this morning my daughter asked me if I felt like a cyborg. The answer was, "No, I felt like I had a foot."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.