Thursday, 5 March 2015

What I Want to Discover and Why

by Filippa Furniss

Very recently, I was given the opportunity to enter an essay competition  run by Imperial College, London. This science-based  challenge gave a variety of essay titles to which we had to answer very briefly but specifically.  One particular title caught my eye and inspired me to write about a topic that I find deeply interesting and worthwhile. I present it to you here and so I hope I might just about scratch the surface in your interest in such a new and developing topic in this century’s agenda of technology: What do you want to discover and why?

Einstein once said, “Play is the highest form of  research.” Childhoods are built on a foundation of  play, with our first few  years being a thrilling part of our lives. Think back  to clambering up a tree, only to fall back out again, squealing with laughter. Think about those times when you ran into the sea on the beach, having built the tallest sandcastle known to man. Think about the joy that this brought to you throughout your childhood and to so many millions around you.

Now imagine having all of that taken away. Throughout the world, there are millions of children who are unable to lead a normal childhood due to the loss of one or more limbs. Taking part in simple activities becomes a mountainous task for these children, thus they become isolated from the rest of the world.

But what about prosthetics, I hear you ask. Surely they are readily available? This is an assumption that is made by many, creating the topic upon which I wish to write my essay. I want to discover a technique through which myoelectic prostheses becomes readily available and successfully used by children of all ages. 

Myoelectic prosthetics are the closest pieces of technology that we have to replacing an actual limb that has been  lost. The technology is outstanding, with electrical impulses from the brain being sent to electrodes positioned just above muscles (which would have previously been responsible for the movement of the limb). These impulses are translated to signals, which in turn tell the motor in the prosthetic exactly what movement the brain wants and  so carries out the movement. Such technology is breath-taking and has changed  the lives of millions of adults. The key word there is “adults”. My aim  would be to tackle the main issues with making myoelectic prostheses available to all children.

There are two main issues that need to be resolved: time and money. As the root of most problems, these come as no surprise. However, the detailed problems lie open, waiting for science to fix them. The biggest dilemma is the acceptance rate of the prosthetics. Much like a human may not accept a kidney transplant, not all nervous systems may accept these types of prosthetics. This not so much an issue with adults, being more common in children. With children constantly growing at rapid rates, the electrodes struggle to make sufficient attachments to the muscles, meaning that a strong connection is rarely made between brain and prosthetic motor.

Therefore, I’d wish to discover a technique through which the electrodes could adapt with the growth of the child. Furthermore, not only do the  technicalities of the equipment raise a problem, hundreds of hours have to be dedicated  to an  intense training programme to ensure acceptance of the artificial limb. Not only is this expensive and complex, but it also requires a huge amount of patience from the children themselves. 

It seems that such prosthetics appear far out of reach for all of these children. Scientists have heavily discussed these issues globally, mainly in America and Sweden. Upon research, I discovered a very interesting article in the Medical Journal written by R N Scott and P A Parker. They outlined the issues with using this technology on infants, referencing many of the key problems discussed. This was not shocking until I saw the date on which the paper had been published: August 1988.

For twenty-seven years, engineers and doctors have been aware of these restrictions! These issues have not been resolved, meaning that children around the world are still missing out on their childhoods. Furthermore, research shows the inability to partake in simple tasks, such as playing with building blocks, can lead to problems with brain development. This has proven to cause possible learning difficulties in children, which many will then sustain for life.

My whole motivation behind this is the absolute unquestioned and raw fighting spirit shown by these children. According to American health statistics, almost four times more children, when tested for these intense programmes, finished the whole course than adults. This acts as solid proof that these children have it in their hearts to withstand the pain, effort and time just with the small hope that one day they might be able to play other children.

All children should be able to lead a normal childhood, with all the bumps and bruises that come with that. This should not be a question. I want to discover types of technology that will allow the electrodes to adapt as the children’s muscles develop with growth. I want this to be available cheaply and easily in a way such that the prosthetics can be fitted quickly and successfully. Why? Because all children need a childhood. 

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