Star Wars – Yesterday’s Sci-Fi is Today’s Reality




An image of Darth Vader's cyborg suit lights up the background of the full reading roster.

Whether you are dreading it, counting down the days or couldn’t care less, with the New Year comes a new Star Wars movie. Production on Episode VII: The Force Awakens ended the first week of November 2014. The film franchise is the perfect reminder of how science fiction of the past has predicted some of today’s incredible technological advancements.

Mark Hamill has turned to the dark side of the Force. He was also the surprise addition to the roster, reading for the Emperor of last Thursday’s live-reading of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, as part of the Film Independent series. Director Jason Reitman and Film Independent clearly made the right choice making Star Wars their latest live reading. The reading, which is typically held at LACMA, was moved to the Majestic Theater at the Ace Hotel in order to accommodate the outcry for more tickets. Throughout the fantastic performance I was reminded of the medical technology in the story.

Before dissecting the million and one illustrations of this, lets take a look at just a few in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Two things jump out as the biggest examples:

    1. Luke’s perfectly human-looking prosthetic hand he can control with his mind, which he receives upon losing his own during the light saber battle with Darth Vader.
    2. Darth Vader’s infamous black suit. In addition to prosthetic replacements this suit serves as Vader’s (AKA Anakin Skywalker’s) life-support.

These details are what put the fiction in the film’s science fiction labeling. Now, nearly 40 years later, the medical technology is not only within our reach, it is our reality.

Last year, Les Baugh of Colorado became the first bilateral shoulder level amputee that can actually control a prosthetic limb with his own mind. Baugh underwent a procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation surgery. This relatively new surgical procedure marks a huge leap in the strategic innovations of biomedical engineering.

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Prostheses have always presented a medical and engineering challenge. After amputation, access to the neural-control information of the missing arm is lost as well, rendering it no longer biomechanically functional. For centuries, prostheses never restored the function of an individual’s amputated limb to anything close to an adequate level. These common prostheses captured the remaining joint motion with a harness, transferring it through a cable to operate the arm, hand, etc.

Targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR) transfers residual arm nerves to alternative muscle sites; typically residual chest or upper-arm muscles. After the surgery, the targeted muscles give off electromyogram (EMG) signals on the surface of the skin. The produced EMG information is significant enough to be measured and subsequently used to control advanced prosthetic devices. The muscles essentially act as biological amplifiers of motor commands from the transferred limb nerves thus giving physiologically appropriate EMG signals for real-time motor control.

John Hopkins trauma surgeon Albert Chi, MD, explains:

‘By reassigning existing nerves, we can make it possible for people who have had upper-arm amputations to control their prosthetic devices by merely thinking about the action they want to perform.’

The approach for each patient varies, depending on the remaining anatomy after amputation. Baugh received two robotic, bionic arms attached at shoulder level. These Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPL) were a part of the result of the DARPA-funded Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program, ran at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

After recovering from surgery, Baugh began working with researchers on the pattern recognition system to use the ground-breaking MPLs.

‘We use pattern recognition algorithms to identify individual muscles that are contracting, how well they communicate with each other, and their amplitude and frequency. We take that information and translate that into actual movements within a prosthetic.’

After just 10 days of training, Baugh was already demonstrating never before seen restoration in his motor control. These developments bring the robotic arm of Skywalker to a very near reality. And what about Vader’s suit? Or holographic technology? These and many others are becoming more and more a part of our world.

But with the rapid pace of technological advancement comes important questions. For example, where do we draw the line between improving for the sake of medicine and improving for the sake of ambition, curiosity or even eugenics?

During the following series of articles we will examine these questions and chart the progression of medical technology.

Special Thanks to Elvis Mitchell, Alis Quart Khan and the Entire Film Independent Community

References

John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory: Press release (16 December, 2014). Amputee Makes History with APL’s Modular Prosthetic Limb Accessed 8 February, 2015.

Kuiken, T. (2009). Targeted Muscle Reinnervation for Real-time Myoelectric Control of Multifunction Artificial Arms JAMA, 301 (6) DOI: 10.1001/jama.2009.116

Daliah Leslie

Daliah Leslie is a professional writer, media and brand strategist, specializing in the film and television industry. Before moving to Los Angeles, Daliah worked in project development for Oscar winners Michael Lynne and Bob Shaye at Unique Features. Her interdisciplinary background includes collaborating with Pulitzer Prize winning author, Joseph J. Ellis (on a screen treatment for his award-winning book) and has shared her know-how on initiatives such as The Fox Writers Intensive and various other screenwriting competitions and festivals. Daliah's work on an innovative, original TV medical pilot is what led her to meet Brain Blogger founder, Dr. Shaheen Lakhan and begin their many collaborative endeavors. She now lends her expansive knowledge of the art and business of the film and television industry as a freelance journalist and has come to be known as "The Hollywood Medical Reporter," for her precision and passion for ethically accurate entertainment.
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