Wednesday, September 21, 2011

E. Paul Zehr's "Inventing Iron Man"

E. Paul Zehr is a professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and the author of Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero and the newly released Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Inventing Iron Man and reported the following:
From page 99:
However, the neurons in the somatosensory cortex still do exist and are expecting and awaiting information from the body. There can be an “expansion” of the maps such that areas that were nearby the now- disconnected brain regions take over and make use of the neurons in the old area. This means that there is remodeling of the cortical maps and is a useful response to accommodate the needs of the nervous system. Your nervous system doesn’t like to have a gap in the map of the relationship between the body and the brain. One odd— but not uncommon— effect of missing limbs is phantom limb and the related phantom pain syndrome. Sometimes the representation in the brain of the amputated limb does not fade away and gets taken over by some other areas and instead persists despite the limb amputation— enter the phantom limb. People suffering from phantom limb syndromes can have the distinct sensation that the limb exists and is there. They can feel itching and tingling and perceive weight in the limb, the exact opposite feeling of a leg that has fallen asleep. Phantom limb syndrome would be merely a nuisance if it were all there was to losing a limb. Unfortunately, what oft en goes along with it is a phantom pain syndrome. This means exactly what it sounds like: the person feels painful sensations that seem to be coming from a limb that no longer exists! As you might guess, this is a very troubling thing to experience.

How can you treat pain in a limb that doesn’t physically exist? The work of Vilayanur Ramachandran and colleagues at the University of California at San Diego has taken an interesting approach to this— by tricking the brain into thinking the missing body part does exist. If a split mirror is set up (often a “mirror box” is used), someone sees the other side of their body on the mirror side. Figure 6.1 shows me using a mirror box at the lab of my friend Richard Carson at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Notice that it appears from the reflections that I have two arms, but one is the reflection of the other. My other arm is hidden behind the mirror. This has been used with amputees with phantom limb syndromes, including phantom limb pain, to treat the symptoms. If participants carefully study their movements and do different tasks with the intact limb while looking in the mirror, they will perceive that the amputated limb is actually moving and feeling sensation.
This excerpt is from page 99 of Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine. I think it represents fairly well the quality of the writing in my book, but does happen to fall right in between discussions of “Iron Man”. Throughout Inventing Iron Man the suit of armor is used as a metaphor for the ultimate “brain machine interface”—a technological interface bridging the gap between our nervous systems and devices like computers and robots. This extract comes from Chapter 6 “Brain Drain—will Tony’s gray matter give way?” where the main focus is on the effects that habitual use of the Iron Man armor would have on the nervous system of the user—Tony Stark. Just after this excerpt I address what I consider the most bizarre and intriguing outcome of this line of thinking. As the excerpt outlines, plasticity in brain maps is well known after traumatic injuries like limb amputations. In that case brain regions take up the function of areas not in use because the body part is missing. This frames the idea of what would happen when using a device like the Iron Man armor. But there is one huge difference. In the case of using the armor in a person who hasn’t had an amputation, THERE ISN”T ANYTING MISSING! So where does the armor go? I ask in a later section “Is there space in Shellhead’s brain to store a skin of iron?” It’s posed as a funny question. The truth is, as I discuss in the book, we don’t know. This is not a natural event, interfacing with machines and computers. We have no clear understanding of what such interfacing would do—long term—to the biological human connected to the technology. This, of course, is the main issue pulsing in the background of Inventing Iron Man…where is the line between human and machine?
Learn more about the book and author at the official Inventing Iron Man website.

Writer's Read: E. Paul Zehr.

--Marshal Zeringue