Episode 10: Bionic bodies

Restoring the senses

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Adam's Weekly Blog

Getting an upgrade

Getting an upgrade

We asked the press assistant how tall the interviewee was so that we...
We asked the press assistant how tall the interviewee was so that we could set the lights to the right height.

“It depends what legs his wearing today,” was the answer. Not something I’ve heard before.

I was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA to meet double amputee Hugh Herr.

Hugh is creating bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs. More than just trying to help people who had lost limbs to injury or disease he is trying to create physical aids that are actually better than the ones our bodies come equipped with.

Herr once said that ‘there is no disability, only bad technology’ and this mantra has helped him to achieve many breakthroughs.

His work in prosthetics began when as a young man he lost both his lower legs in a climbing accident. Hugh was an accomplished climber. By the time he was eight years old, he had scaled the face of the 3,544 m Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies and by 17 he was acknowledged to be one of the best climbers in the United States.

In January 1982, after having ascended a difficult technical ice route in Huntington Ravine on Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Herr and fellow climber Jeff Batzer, were caught in a blizzard and became disoriented.

They were stuck and had to spend three nights on the mountain at −20 °F. By the time they were rescued, the climbers had suffered severe frostbite. Both of Herr's legs had to be amputated below the knees; his companion lost his lower left leg, the toes on his right foot, and the fingers on his right hand. During the rescue attempt, volunteer Albert Dow was killed by an avalanche.

Hugh was just 18 and the accident which of course was terrible, involved not just himself and his colleague but resulted in the death of the volunteer rescuer.

It is hard to imagine the effect that will have had on him. He talked to me about the debt he owed to Albert Dow and how shocked he was by the crudeness of the prosthetic legs he was given. He said he became determined to improve the technology that was available.

He had previously been as uninterested in school as many a young man who preferred the outdoors. But he became dedicated to the task of finding out how to improve the technology to help amputees like himself.

That search has involved introducing new materials to the area of research and new kinds of thinking. Herr uses the kinds of blades that are most familiar because of Oscar Pestorius, the athlete who used similar ones in his racing career. But Herr’s artificial limbs are different, they are power assisted.

I am no athlete but I challenged Herr to a race. In most circumstance you might expect an averagely fit man to be able to beat a man with no legs of his own. But Herr raced me to the second floor laboratory and not only did he win – when we had to re-shoot – he won again.

The batteries in his legs helped a little, I am sure, but the design of his legs were clearly helping him. Plus he was just a better runner, legs or no legs.

He told me he thought this kind of research might change the way we think of our natural bodies. Perhaps in the future we will be keen to “upgrade” to a more efficient aided body structure even if we have all our limbs. It’s the same approach we now have to upgrading our phone that might one day mean we demand a body re-set and upgrade.

There are dark mutterings about this aided body being used by the military. Could soldiers march for hours longer and faster if their legs also had a battery boost? This is not as uncontentious an area as you might think.

It’s a complicated vision of the future which is not entirely comforting – but remarkable it certainly is.
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