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The cyborgs among us

Jennifer French is one of the nicest cyborgs you’ll ever meet. Nine years ago, French became paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 26 - but today she’s able to stand up from her wheelchair unaided, due to pushbutton-activated electrodes implanted in her leg muscles. Now she’s looking forward to the day when all she’ll need to do is think about walking, and she’ll walk. "Imagine a world where the bionic man isn’t just a TV show," she said. Believe it or not, that world is already becoming a reality.

The word "cyborg" may call to mind visions of Arnold Schwarzenegger's mechano-muscleman in the "Terminator" movies, or the creepy-looking Borg villains from "Star Trek." But if you go by the American Heritage Dictionary's definition that a cyborg is simply "a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices," French definitely qualifies - along with thousands of other people with high-tech prosthetics.

French, whose spinal cord was injured in a snowboarding accident, attained her cyborg status thanks to the Cleveland Functional Electrical Stimulation Center - the research group that created the pushbutton box she wears around her midriff. By pressing the right buttons, she can command a sequence of muscle nerve firings that help her stand up and move.

Courtesy of Jennifer French
Jennifer French and her husband, Tim, pose at

their wedding. French, who is paralyzed from the

waist down, was able to walk down the aisle,

thanks to a pushbutton muscle-stimulation

system and a walker festooned with flowers.

"My first stand was wonderful," she recalled earlier this month in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Suddenly I could hug my husband and my parents without having a medical device in between us. ... I could walk down the aisle at my wedding. Those are things that you can't replace. That's quality of life that insurance doesn't reimburse for."

Now she's the executive director of a nonprofit group called the Neurotech Network, which aims to raise awareness about neurotechnologies that can assist people with disabilities. Some of those technologies are aimed at miniaturizing and internalizing the way people can control their cybernetic limbs.

For example, Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue is working with the Cleveland FES Center to modify the muscle-stimulating system so that it's activated by electrodes the size of baby aspirin pills, implanted directly into the brain.

"Merely by thinking about moving, you'll move," Donoghue explained.

The research builds on studies that Donoghue and others have conducted with monkeys - in which the primates have been programmed to control external devices ranging from a cursor on a computer screen to a robotic arm hundreds of miles away.

Donoghue's venture, Cyberkinetics, is conducting clinical trials with patients who have become paralyzed due to brain-stem strokes, spinal cord injury or degenerative nerve diseases (such as the malady that struck world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking). The initial results are encouraging, he said.

Some of the tests involve mental control of a computer that can steer a motorized wheelchair, type out a letter or compose a speech for delivery by a voice synthesizer. "We have shown that people who are totally paralyzed can operate that computer," Donoghue said.

Other tests are aimed at developing a device that will give quadriplegics the ability to "grasp a spoon and bring the spoon to their mouth - to feed themselves, basically," he said.

Right now, the equipment requires a lot of external wiring, but Donoghue foresees a day when the whole system can be implanted inside the body, running straight from the brain to the moving parts. "There'll be a fiber-optic nervous system - basically, an Internet of the body," he told me.

To learn more about Jennifer French and others involved in promoting the next wave in neurotechnology, check out this article from IEEE Spectrum (plus photos here and here). And to see other cyborgs in action, check out NBC's video clips about British experimenter Kevin Warwick and real-life bionic woman Claudia Mitchell.