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The Future of Medicine: Cyborgs

In recent years we have seen a rise in futuristic and science fiction movies, many including robot-like humans, with both organic and biomechatronic parts; the most popular portrayal being the cybernetic organisms we all know and love, cyborgs. We have seen it all, from the blockbuster Terminator franchise to Star Trek, but we could never even dream of replicating such sophisticated technology—until now. However, this type of cybernetic technology has a different purpose than terrorizing humanity: the potential of rehabilitation.

HAL, Hybrid Assistive Limb, is the world‘s first cyborg-type robot. It was developed by Yoshiyuki Sanka, professor of Japan’s Tsukuba University, and robotics company Cyberdyne. It acts like a powerful exoskeleton, designed to support and rehabilitate the physical capabilities of the user. It can assist individuals with physical disabilities, providing medical treatment for patients cerebral, nervous and muscle disorders. HAL allows the user to move and increasingly exert motor energy, as well as accelerating motor learning of cerebral nerves. 

How does it work? It detects the user’s brain waves. When a person intends to move their body, the brain transmits signals to the muscles. These bio-electric signals leak on the skin surface, which HAL then detects utilizing sensors attached to the skin. After detecting the signals, the exoskeleton will move the joints to support the wearer’s motions. HAL utilizes both “Cybernic Voluntary Control”, a voluntary control system, and “Cybernic Autonomous Control”, an automatic motion support system.

Cyberdyne claims it is the “fusion of man, machine and information.”

In February of 2013, it became the first powered exoskeleton to receive global safety certification. Five years later, in 2018, the Brooks Cybernic Treatment Center in Jacksonville, Florida, introduced this new technology to the United States. HAL has now had one of its biggest success stories with Kristen Sorensen. Sorensen, 55, was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a neurological disorder that left her paralyzed from the neck down. With the support of physiotherapists and HAL, Sorensen has been able to expand her range of motion. After 40 training sessions, she was able to stand up using a walker.

Technology is progressing at an incredible rate, and with it, the medical world. We can only wait to see what the future has for us. Perhaps the term cyborg will become much more common in the years to come.

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