How heartening to watch the Invictus Games on the ABC last month! I marveled at the unconquered passion for life demonstrated by service men and women maimed, wounded or mentally damaged in their countries’ conflicts. Through sport, through the Invictus Games in particular, they showed how athleticism and the camaraderie of sporting competition helps recovery and rehabilitation.
What also caught my attention were the specifically designed tools – prosthetics – that helped each maimed athlete. And having watched the fast and powerful wheelchair rugby matches, I’ll never look at wheelchairs again without them morphing into dodgem cars.
Famous scientist, Stephen Hawking died earlier this year. At 21 in 1963 he had been diagnosed with a form of motor neurone disease which causes the nerves in the spine and brain to progressively lose function. Most people who contract the disease do not live more than five years. Hawking managed to live and work as a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author for a further 55 years despite increasing disability and confinement to a wheelchair.
Hawking escaped the limits of his disability by training his mind to work in a new way. As he started to lose the use of his limbs, he developed a way of visualising problems in his mind to reach a solution instead of by writing equations.
Assistive technologies housed on a wheelchair and controlled by a Lenova computer were controlled by Hawking using muscles in his cheeks, picked up by an infrared switch attached to his glasses. Just as we use a letter keyboard to search for films on smart TVs, Hawking used a similar keyboard to select each letter for the lectures, letters and even the many books he wrote. The development of predictive text, similar to that used on smart phones, helped him write faster.
When Stephen Hawking lost the ability to talk he was helped to use a cutting-edge speech synthesizer which made it much easier to understand him. He would use the keyboard to write a sentence and then send it to the speech synthesizer to speak it. When he gave a lecture, he could write out the lecture and using a piece of software called Lecture Manager, he could send it to the speech synthesizer one paragraph at a time.
How much easier would it have been for Stephen Hawking if he had had the use of the communication prosthesis being invented by Australian neurologist, Dr Tom Oxley and team in Melbourne and California. Current methods of capturing brain signals involves either electrodes placed outside the skull, which produce poor quality brain signals, or electrodes placed within the brain through an operation causing inflammation. Oxley came up with a totally different approach. His unique idea involves a catheter to carry a prosthesis called a stentrode along a highway of blood vessels to a place just above the motor cortex at the top of the brain. The stentrode sits there to eavesdrop on brain signals. The brain signals are then transmitted back to a wireless antenna implanted in the chest. A software system enables patients to control an operating system that uses a digital language that controls multiple applications.
One day soon we will be able to control our tools directly with our minds. How then will Invictus athletes play rugby? Maybe using exoskeletons controlled by their minds… bionic and definitely brave.