Humans constantly try to invent things that compensate for what they don’t have. Starting from the peg legs and hooked metal hands of pirates, we are continuously making advancements that could potentially replace our organs. In the status quo, we are able to make accurate replicas of virtually any organ that could possibly go wrong, including but not limited to: hearts, lungs, teeth, ears, livers, and even eyes, to some extent. Below are some of the most cutting-edge technology that has been developed so far.
Ears are extremely delicate organs that provide us one of our five senses: hearing. The delicate functions of the ear, however cause it to be vulnerable to many flaws; flaws which we have almost solved, fortunately. Below are some of the most recognized ways to help the ear.
Some people experience a decline in their hearing capabilities, especially in the volume of the sound. This problem calls for a hearing aid, a device that amplifies the magnitude of the sound that goes into the ear. The hearing aid uses a microphone to receive sounds, then increases the power of the signals through an amplifier, then sends the sounds to the ear via a speaker. Hearing aids are the most widely used device that helps the ear.
A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that does the work of damaged parts of the inner ear(cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain. Unlike hearing aids, which make sounds louder, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain. The device consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. The microphone located above the earlobe, picks up sound from the environment and send it through a speech processor, which selects and arranges sounds picked up by the microphone. The processer sends the signals to the transmitter and stimulator, converting the signals to electric impulses, finally sending them to a electrode array in which a group of electrodes collect the impulses and send them to different regions of the auditory nerve of the brain. Unfortunately, a cochlear implant does not restore normal hearing, although it can give a partial or fully deaf person a useful representation of sounds in the environment, and help the person understand speech.
3D bioprinting is a relatively new tissue engineering strategy that holds a great potential to play a key role in personalized medicine. It has applications in not only ears, but other parts of the body as well. Regarding ears, this method is used to print earlobes, which help catch sounds coming from the sides. Though printing artificial ears is not widely used yet, it is holding great promise as the first patients are receiving newly grafted ears from their own cells. Researchers first scanned a normal ear and 3D printed a copy to create a mold, which in turn was used to create a scaffold for cells taken from the malformed ear tissue to grow in. The fully grown ear was surgically attached to the patients, who haven’t had health problems regarding their ear ever since.
Prosthetic eyes have been the topic of research for many ears, yet we haven’t been able to completely mimic the function of the eye. The best we have currently is a eye that contains electrodes which stimulate the retina’s ganglion cells (output cells) that are usually left intact even after diseases that cause blindness. These stimulators only allow the blind to see rough visual fields, however. Many efforts are being made to completely restore sight, and some of the most hopeful approaches are using an external digital camera that sends electrodes into the right positions of the brain, and a device that converts images to electrical impulses, then to light impulses that trigger light sensitive proteins.
Artificial limbs are also a large field of research. Whether it be amputees from an accident or children who were born that way, prostheses are a hopeful option for many. One of the most recent development in this field are a mix of robotics and biology, a body powered prosthetic arm. They contain sockets that are built from hard epoxy or carbon fiber, and are lined with a compressible foam material. Additional advancements have been made so that the prosthetic limb gives biofeedback that allows the user to “feel” what is being held.