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NEW – Bionic Senses ‘Stargates to Moon-shots’ Group

A new Bionics Queensland ‘Stargates to Moon-shots’ Group led by Dr Dimity Dornan AO will come together soon to discuss grassroots aspirations for bionic innovations across the senses (hearing, vision, touch, taste, speech and emotion). The ‘senses’ is one of five ‘stargates’ or areas of bionics with the potential to deliver moonshots – breakthroughs that result in a tenfold impact on global healthcare.

When the bionic ear was successfully commercialised by Cochlear Ltd, it represented a landmark moment in history. Australia celebrated its delivery of the first ever neuromodulation device, one that interfaced with the brain and made changes to it. In children, particularly those who were implanted early, it allowed the undeveloped brain in the auditory areas to become reorganised to be closer to the pattern of normal development shown by children with normal hearing.

Sensory prostheses, unlike many neurobionics devices, are continually evolving in response to an ever changing environment. The development of sensory prostheses has escalated since the first visual prostheses using cortical stimulation went into clinical trials in the 1960s.

Products like the Aria from Google Glass, a non-corporeal aide that provides navigation and description of immediate surroundings are now available for those with impaired vision. Other devices include the Cara from Microsoft HoloLens, an augmented reality headset that acts as a navigator and assigns customised tonal and spatial voices to objects in the immediate field of vision. The Pulse2 Percept from University of Washington, an open source simulation framework now allows researchers to model what a blind person would see once a prosthetic is switched on and there are others.

Among the more invasive technological solutions is the Argus II from Second Sight primarily used by those with advanced retinitis pigmentosa. The Argus II allows people to discern objects with high contrast. Another option, the Prima from Pixium (a subretinal device) is similar to the Argus II, but it has more electrodes.

Visual neurobionics devices that are now commercially available include the Alpha IMS System from Retina Implant (a sub-retinal device). This device employs a 1500 electrode microchip which is wireless, and it has the advantage of drawing on natural eye movement. Another sub-retinal prosthesis from Second Sight, the Orion, is wireless and is able to be applied to a wide range of conditions that affect human vision.

Significant developments in Stem Cell Technology are expected to treat vision problems but some difficulties are arising in delivering these cells to the retina. In contrast, the cochlear implant or bionic ear, the most commonly used auditory prosthesis is based on mature technology with a 30 year foothold in the marketplace.

The Cochlear implant first trialled in the 70’s and implanted in a human in 1982 was a moon-shot discovery. It allowed a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years to hear again.

In the words of the inventor of the multichannel cochlear implant, Professor Graeme Clark of Melbourne, Australia, the first devices implanted represented the first time that a human brain, the human consciousness and a replaced human sense had been interfaced. Today a number of different brands have become available but the Cochlear Ltd version has now helped more people world-wide.

The bionic ear is widely recognised now as the breakthrough that caused the advent of other bionics devices and the uprising of the burgeoning bionics industry today.

Central auditory prostheses have become available for people with compromised nerves from the cochlear along the pathway to the brain or who have extensive fibrous tissue and/or new bone in the cochlear, or if the cochlear is malformed and they are unable to use a cochlear implant. These are usually implanted in the auditory brain stem, the midbrain or in some studies in the cortex.

Studies have been conducted on implants to assist proprioception by implantation in the semicircular canals, and sensory information is starting to be used for allowing prosthetic hands to ‘feel’, for example sensor-filled ‘skin’. Benjamin Tee, the co-author of a study on this ‘electronic skin’, reported in Science Robotics today reported on sheets of silicon covered with 240 sensors that can pick up contact, pressure, temperature and humidity. These were able to simultaneously transmit data to a single encoder and the system is expected to still work when it is scaled up to 100,000 sensors.

Building on the 22 electrodes included in the commercial bionics ear, many more sensory prostheses will be available in future. Limiting factors so far have been the ability to produce devices with multiple electrodes which can be shielded from each other so they can be stimulated with specificity, movement of some body parts, wet bodily environments, and other factors such as the ability to charge devices internally implanted in the human body. However great strides have been made in the area of bionics senses, and will continue to be made in the coming decade.