For some people, their body is a temple, a temple to be preserved and undefiled. Yet, for a variety of reasons, an ever increasing number of people are willing to park electronics and other non-biological articles inside their bodies. The principle reasons for body implants are medical – repairing bones, pacing heartbeats – that sort of thing. However, no one should be surprised that the fastest growing use of body implants is for reasons of cosmetics and convenience, take breast implants (please) for example.
In terms of technology, it’s helpful to distinguish body implants, first, from transplants and second, from synthetic organs. Transplants are also a form of ‘implantation’ but they involve purely biological body parts, in fact, duplicates of the body part being replaced, except they come from another individual. Synthetic organs, such as an artificial heart, are obviously body implants; the main distinction is that they are entire organs, typically very complex entities, whereas most body implants are either much simpler pieces of the body, such as a hip replacement, or electronic devices not intended to replace any existing body part.
The many forms of implantation
The business of body implantation – inserting devices inside the human body – is already decades old. For example, research that eventually led to heart pacemakers and defibrillators goes back to 1889. The modern pacemaker dates to 1957 and 1958. In the last twenty years or so, the increasing sophistication of implant techniques and the reduction of body rejection have widened the application of implanted devices. This is particularly true for uses in the brain, such as monitoring and control of epileptic seizures and neurological pacemakers to combat severe cases of depression. The list of what’s already being done with implants is impressive and perhaps a little surprising:
Brain (or neural) implants: Pacemakers for the brain have been in use since 1997, mostly for alleviation of severe pain or diseases such as Parkinsons. Research in this area is rapidly developing new techniques for monitoring and controlling various aspects of brain function, including the insertion of computer chips (CPUs).
Sensory implants: Sometimes called cognotechnology, the replacement or augmentation of body senses by implanted devices has generally focused on sight (implanted replacement for eye parts) and hearing (cochlear implant). The research in this area, although already producing commercial products, is in its infancy – particularly in the use of augmentation implants (making a sense, such as sight, better than normal).
Spinal implants: The use of replacement segments for the spine (bone and cartilage) are part of clinical procedures. Most spinal implants are intended to relieve pain. Electronic devices are used to regulate muscular and nerve signals that cause back-pain.
Organ stimulation implants: The most familiar implants of this kind are heart pacemakers and defibrillators, which help to restore or maintain normal heartbeats. Similar devices are being developed for other organs.
Subcutaneous implants: Placing devices just under the skin (more precisely) under the subcutaneous layer, is the preferred method for many kinds of monitoring and body support devices. New methods of drug delivery use this approach, as do personal identification devices (ID chips), and soon, a large number of convenience implants. The obvious advantage is that insertion or removal of subcutaneous devices is relatively easy.
Repair implants: This is probably the oldest and most prevalent form of implant, which involves repairing or supporting bones and other structures in the body. Stents, braces, rods, pins, heart valves, hip prothesis, and knee replacements are examples of the implanted items.
Dental implants: Caps, crowns, plugs, posts and other dental implants are so common that they probably don’t even to come to mind as being implants. Modern dental surgery also replaces teeth and jaw bones with artificial substitutes.
Cosmetic implants: This is an area of implantation that often merges with the techniques of plastic surgery. Breast enlargement with silicon (or other) implants gets the most attention, but almost all elements of the visible body (ears, nose, hands…) are becoming targets for body implants.
Convenience implants: The use of implanted devices for body/health monitors, communications, computer access, sensory enhancement…is limited only by the ingenuity and vanity of the human species.
Many problems and concerns
While most people accept dental implants without scruple, other forms of implants are highly controversial – particularly those involving the brain and the placement of monitors inside the body. Issues of privacy, security, and mind-control are always lurking behind any type of invasive procedure and especially for implantation of electronic devices. Within the next decade or two, the rapid growth of cosmetic and convenience implants will undoubtedly provoke a public backlash in many countries, if for no other reason than the practice of implantation for non-medical reasons seems ‘unnatural.’
Keep in mind that most forms of implantation for the human body can also be applied to animals and eventually to plants. In fact, most of the technology now is use was developed and tested on animals.
Impact Area: Body Implants
How important are ‘body implants’ to the future of humanity? Are we on the way to becoming cyborgs? Only in science fiction, for now; but it’s not an unreasonable question. However, it’s not necessary to envision human cyborgs to wonder what the unlimited alteration of appearance by implantation might mean. Combine “Body Implants” with “Synthetic Organs” and “Genetic Modification” and these three impact areas can only augur potentially massive changes in the human animal – not in the relatively orderly and slow process of evolution, but with the speed and whim of cultural (or even fashion) trends.
Posts in this Impact Area: (Body Implants)
- A first: wireless, broadband, rechargeable, implantable brain sensor
- New micro-packaging for muscle stimulating implant
- New ear implant restores balance
- A heart monitor planted in an artery
- Nanotube transistors powered by the body’s own energy source
- First human tests for a ‘bionic eye’
- A First: Microchips in living cells
- A Piezo Patch: Body movement input, electricity output
- Implant electronics with silicon on silk
- Bionic lenses