Nano-robots could boost advanced prosthetics

“The body could use nano-robots to supply energy to prostheses” (Credit: Matt Clough)

What does the next 10 years have in store for engineering? Experts from eight industry sectors shared their thoughtful, professional – and sometimes controversial – predictions for the Roaring Twenties with us.

Body and brain ‘coordinate’ mapping will transform biomedical engineering, says Michael I Miller, Director of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University:

In the 20th century, GPS helped map the outside world with unprecedented accuracy and precision. The 21st century will be devoted to mapping the inner world.

We’re starting to map the brain at the micron scale, instead of the millimeter resolution of MRI scans. It means mapping structural anatomy and patterns of neural connectivity. Techniques such as unicellular transcriptomics can map connections at the molecular and cellular levels. If we can understand the “coordinates” of the brain – the molecules, cells, and connections that determine behavior – that will be transformative.

Using this information, we will be able to build computer models of entire organ systems and their connectivity. This will allow us to simulate the behavior of neural and chemical circuits, for example, and predict the flow of disease.

These computer representations of body coordinates will also lead to the next generation of 3D printing. The integration of molecular function with 3D printed scaffolds will allow us to design functional synthetic fabrics. In the brain, this means the ability to design artificial neural circuits to improve memory or restore motor function in patients with neurodegenerative disease. However, the possible impact of such technology extends to all organ systems, offering enormous potential for the future of regenerative medicine and cell therapy.

The most successful neuro-prostheses are cortical prostheses such as hearing implants – today, children born deaf can instantly integrate into the world of language. The interesting thing is that a deaf child’s brain learns to hear in a completely different way. Through human evolution, the brain and body learn to use what is available to function as fully as possible. We can use this as an example of where neuroengineering is going.

Motorized exoskeletons offer incredible possibilities, maintaining or restoring independent movement for the elderly or disabled. At Clinatec and at the University of Grenoble in France, paralyzed man was able to control all four limbs to successfully walk in a mind-controlled robotic suit tied to a brain implant. This technology will be much more advanced by 2030.

One problem with exoskeletons is that data sensors use massive amounts of energy – but the brain performs five times more calculations using orders of magnitude less energy. The human body releases energy, so why should we have energy sources on our scalp or other uncomfortable places on the skin? The next generation of advanced biomedical machines could be active devices that can be inserted into heart muscle, interfacing with energy from the body.

The question will be how to generate and supply energy to operate these devices. Nanobots are a very interesting option. The body could use them to support a prosthesis in the same way it supports an arm.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Mavis R. Bernier