Friday, June 02, 2006

HealthFirst-Repairing humans

By Leslie LoBue
(05/18/06)-- Over the years, we've heard miraculous stories about people getting artificial arms, legs, even hearts.
Some doctors say they can create artificial brains, or at least brain parts, that may help millions of people with diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and epilepsy.
The future of the human race is about to take a turn.
"I think all human beings have wanted to be better than well. we have always wanted to transcend the limitations of the human condition," said James Hughes, the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association.
Hughes believes the world is headed for a superhuman future. "We have continued to invent new technologies to extend the reach of the human body.  New tools and new ways of modifying the way the body works."
In Los Angeles, neuroscientist Theodore Berger has developed the first artificial brain part - a hippocampus to help people with Alzheimer's form new memories. "There's no reason why we can't think in terms of artificial brain parts in the same way we can think in terms of artificial eyes and artificial ears," Berger said.
Information would come into the brain the same way, but would be re-routed to a computer chip, bypassing the damaged area of the hippocampus.  "What we're hoping to do is replace at least enough of that function, so there's a significant improvement in the quality of life."
The technology could also help stroke, epilepsy and Parkinson's patients.
At the medical college of Wisconsin, Doctor Jay Neitz  is also on the super-human frontier. "Since we are human beings and we like to try new things, we could say 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool if we had a whole other dimension of vision?'"
Primates and humans have three photo-receptors and can see four basic colors - red, green, blue and yellow. Here's a newsflash: Birds, fish and reptiles have four photo-receptors.
"It is clear that it does allow them to see things that we cannot see. they must have this whole extra dimension of color that we miss out on."
Neitz is studying gene therapy to give humans that extra dimension. By injecting modified genes directly into the eyes of colorblind monkeys, he expects to change their world. "It's hard to imagine that you would even know what it would be like to have this extra dimension of vision," he said.
Neitz says we could see ultraviolet, infrared and all the new shades we'd get by combining them. "I personally, I like the idea of being able to make ourselves better."
"I think this is an intrinsic part of human nature, of the human condition that we see that we are limited. we live in a limited world, and we are trying to push beyond those limits," Hughes said.
Now, it's up to technology to see how far beyond  those limits we can go.