Robotic Appendage Use Alters Brain Activity for Affected Area of Body

fmri data show different brain activity in body augmentation subjects

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Deaf boy with cochlear implant for hearing
Brain scans of study participants having used a “robo-thumb,” an artificial robotic digit, showed that their brains had accommodated the existence and use of the extra appendage. Photo By Kalah_R / Shutterstock

A robotic appendage called the “Third Thumb” allows users to control a sixth digit on one hand, near the little finger. It’s fastened to the wrist like a bracelet and controlled with sensors below the feet. Study participants quickly found themselves performing dexterous feats with the device.

However, scientists also performed fMRIs on multiple participants and found that the way their fingers were represented in the sensorimotor cortex of the brain had changed. Normally, the use of each finger is unique in an fMRI, but participants showed diminished differences between each finger.

In his video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Dr. Steven Gimbel, the Edwin T. Johnson and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, offered several examples of transhumanism to consider.

Stronger, Faster … Better?

A philosophy called transhumanism seeks to combine new technology with our own biology to create a hybridized natural and mechanical being out of its proponents—in a word, cyborgs. Once the stuff of science fiction, cyborgs have been inching closer to reality. Depending on your perspective, they may already be here.

“We have had individuals who are human/technology hybrids for decades, but traditionally this was restricted to those who had medical conditions,” Dr. Gimbel said. “Pacemakers, for example, are inserted into those with heart problems to check the rhythms of the heart’s beating and provide an electrical kick when needed to make sure it remains functioning properly.”

Cochlear implants, likewise, have been used to restore hearing to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. However, this seems to be the crux of the cyborg discussion: Should devices like cochlear implants and prosthetic limbs merely serve to replace parts of us that are failing or missing, or should they be used to enhance?

“The replacement approach sees the human body as ideal and the prosthetic wearer as damaged and needing to be elevated back as close as possible to the ideal,” Dr. Gimbel said. “The enhancement approach, on the other hand, sees the prosthetic wearer as an opportunity to improve on the human body. The human body, on this second account, is not ideal or perfect, but rather, unnecessarily limited, and when we use prosthetics to replace broken parts, we can do it in a way that upgrades the body.”

Examples of Transhumanism Today

According to Dr. Gimbel, it was long thought that prosthetic legs should look and function as closely to their biological counterparts as possible. American biomedical engineer Van Phillips believed humans should think of ourselves as detachable from our biologically given bodies and not be constrained by the accidental destination to which evolution has brought us.

“The result was the Flex-Foot Cheetah®, a springy blade design worn most famously by Paralympic athletes,” Dr. Gimbel said. “These are more efficient than biological limbs and allow for running at speeds and jumping to heights that are beyond the capacity of those without them. Prosthetics are not only allowing wearers to be normal, but to exceed the norm.”

Eyeglasses, bifocals, and contact lenses seem like simple fixes to vision problems, falling squarely into the theory that prosthetics should replace or repair our faulty biological equipment, so to speak. LASIK surgery is, no pun intended, a bit blurrier. LASIK restores our vision without wearing an aid. From the replacement approach, that’s simple enough.

Until it isn’t.

“By using a laser to slice open the cornea, in many cases the eye can be reshaped to restore 20/20 vision,” Dr. Gimbel said. “If we want to move from the replacement to the enhancement view, the surgery can be used to give people superior vision. Athletes like Tiger Woods, Lebron James, and Greg Maddux all had the surgery to not only correct their vision, but to also enhance it.

“Results can bring the eye to 20/15 vision or better.”

As technology continues to advance, it seems as though the “real” purpose of prosthetics will ultimately be decided by each individual.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily