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Open Prosthetics Project September 23, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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Scientific America has a fantastic article about a man who is revolutionizing the prosthetics design industry.  Jonathan Kuniholm, a marine reservist, lost his right arm in Iraq after his platoon was ambushed by insurgents.  Due to advances in medical technology surgeons were able to save his life but Kuniholm now suffered a fate shared by many soldiers, where wounds that in the past would have killed them now leave them maimed and disfigured.  Upon returning to the United States, Kuniholm was was fitted with two prosthesis.  The first was a standard split-hook device operated by a harness and cable system controlled by the shoulder and arm, and a more advanced myoelectric device which picks up nerve signals produced by muscle contraction to open and close the pincers of the hand. Both of these devices were on the cutting edge of prosthetic design, but Kuniholm wasn’t impressed.  In fact he was shocked by the lack of innovation in the prosthetics market.

In contrast to popular imagination and sci-fi movies, where prosthesis often grant Herculean strength and superhuman abilities, prosthetic devices in the real world are nowhere near as efficient as natural limbs and progress is very slow.  The reasons behind this stagnation are simple economics.  With the cost of prosthetics devices quite high (600 dollars for a basic hook and up to 6000 for a myoelectric hand) and the number of people needing them rather small there is little incentive for companies or individuals to invest the capital needed to improve the design.  So Kuniholm turned to a system that has been used in software design for years, open source.  With a few friends he started an online consortium called the Open Prosthetics Project, whose goal is to encourage innovation, to “Pimp my Arm” as it is known on the site, and then freely give the designs away.  Anyone can contribute to the website and all the designs are free to use.

With such a small market, open source may be the only credible way to bring new ideas and designs into the prosthetics market.  There is certainly no lack of minds willing to tackle this problem so giving them a place to share ideas is our best chance to take prosthetics forward.


Study Finds EPO Has Cognitive Benefits September 11, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Endurance, Human Enhancement.
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Josh over at Human Enhancement and Biopolitics has recently commented on a rather interesting development concerning EPO.  EPO, or erythropoietin, is a hormone in the body that regulates red blood cell production.  While naturally occuring in the body, it is also a favorite drug of endurance athletes the world over for its ability to increase the body’s production of red blood cells and thus increase submaximal endurance.  However, new studies have shown that EPO also has beneficial neurological effects.  Doctors had noticed that patients given EPO to treat kidney failure also gained an increase in cognitive abilities.  To quantify these affects researchers than conducted a study whereby rats were given injections of EPO every other day for three weeks.  At the end of the trial mice given the drug had better memory in some situations than those fed a placebo, with the cognitive benefits lasting up to four weeks after the last injection.

While all the above is interesting, the best part is why EPO triggered these effects.  When I first read this I assumed that that increases in memory could be attributed to the increased red blood cell count.  Keep in mind that more RBC’s means more oxygen making it’s way to the brain allowing the brain to produce more energy and thus do more work.  Instead, it seems that EPO is actually directly affecting the hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with memory and learning, by increasing the plasticity of the neurons found there.  In essence, it is making the neurons more efficient at transmitting nerve impulses.

All of this has some very exciting implications.  EPO’s well documented physical effects already make it a wonder drug for athletes, these new fidings could make it popular with the population at large.  Just as steroids are popular with average people trying to mold a more physically attrative body so EPO could soon become popular with those trying to get a advantage at work or in business, and unlike steroids the dangers of EPO (too many RBC’s can be dangerous) can be rather easily kept in check with regular blood tests to ensure a healthy level of RBC’s.  It is possible that as more people accept the benefits of EPO, acceptance of other enhancement technologies will also rise, helping to bring the beneftis of these technologies to more and more people.