This is a summary of an article done by Dr. E. Paul Zehr who is a professor in the School of Exercise Science and Division of Medical Sciences at the University of Victoria.
Original article: Zehr, E. P. (2015). The Potential Transformation of Our Species by Neural Enhancement. Journal of Motor Behavior, 47(1), 73–78. The article can be found here.
In the future, the same types of technology used as methods of recovery for limb functions that are lost could be used to improve the functioning of a healthy limb. This neural enhancement would provide the potential for an improvement beyond the regular function of a healthy limb and has implications in the field of neural prosthetics, a discipline within the field of neuroscience that aims to develop prosthetic limbs that could used to mimic the function of healthy limbs. Limb replacement is related to neural enhancement as they both aim to improve how one’s body functions. Techniques that are used as methods of treatment could see secondary use by improving normal human functioning to a point where we could possess superhuman abilities.
A real life example
Oscar Pistorius is a well-known South African sprinter, a double amputee below the knees, who serves as an example of how neural prosthetics were used in the past. Pistorius was born without fibulas and his chances of standing and walking were considered extremely low from a young age. He had a surgical amputation done on his lower legs at the age of 11 months. For him, this was a functional improvement that allowed him to carry his weight so he could walk and run. Later in life, he became a competitive sprinter, using artificial limbs referred to as “blades” to run.
Pistorius became known as the world’s most accomplished double-amputee sprinter, but his blades also brought about some controversy. It was argued that Pistorius’s blades improved his running stride and were also lighter than an intact human lower leg, suggested that Pistorius was able to run faster than able-bodied sprinters.
Based on the results of scientific studies that have been done, Pistorius’s blades do in fact significantly improve his running efficiency and can be moved about 15% faster than the lower legs they replaced. His blades provided him with the ability to compete with others, and also provided him with an unfair physical advantage over his opponents.
The use of prosthetic limbs to improve Pistorius’ performance is an example of how technology has been used in the past to increase one’s level of functioning. The improvement of human ability through technology has various social and ethical implications that must be thoroughly considered as we move towards a more technologically innovative era. As a society, we need to consider whether it is acceptable for an individual to replace healthy parts of their body for the sake of a performance advantage.
How does this relate to individuals with spinal cord injury?
In the future, neural enhancement could allow individuals with spinal cord injuries to receive treatment in an effort to help repair functions that may have been lost, or even improve normal functioning of other areas of the body. If the functioning of other areas of the body could be improved, then more functional independence could be attained.