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Nuts & Volts Magazine (May 2017)

Biology + Electronics

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

As a reader of Nuts & Volts, you might get the false impression that electronics is limited to multimedia entertainment, security systems, drones and autonomous systems, and other component-based devices. However, these pursuits neglect the vast world of electronics applied to biology and biological systems.

Consider that, long before the Matrix movie revealed that we’re nothing more than copper-top batteries living in a virtual world (1999), or Mary Shelley described the reanimation of Frankenstein with electricity (1822), the curious were experimenting with electricity and biology. Luigi Galvani performed his famous frog leg experiments in 1780, for example, which revealed “animal electricity.” Then, there was the development of electro-convulsive shock therapy in 1937, which essentially consisted of rebooting the brain by shocking it into a state of convulsions.

Today, the intermingling of biology and electronics is so vast that there are subspecialties, ranging from the biomolecular (i.e., Bioelectronics) to the gross integration of robots, biology, and electronics (Biomechatronics).

Given this reality, you might be asking why these topics aren’t covered more prominently in Nuts & Volts, SERVO Magazine, or other technology publications. The reasons are many and varied, but ethics, animal rights, safety, and assumptions of reader training are probably the most important.

In my college experimental psychology class, I was required to drill a hole in the skull of a white rat, insert a 32 gauge wire into a specific area of the rat’s brain, and hook up the wire to a stimulator. With a few hours of training, I had the rat obeying my commands.

Similarly, when I studied physiology in medical school, I was given a new dog every week for my experiments that involved electrocardiograms, electromyograms, as well as various forms of electrical stimulation.

Today, such student experiments are not permitted in medical schools. Multimedia simulations of animal preparations and their responses to electrical stimulation are the norm. Experiments using electronics coupled with primates and other biological specimens are still conducted by researchers, but the labs are hidden away from potential protestors.

Aside from ethical issues, as architects of this magazine, the publisher and editorial staff have to make some assumptions about you, the reader. While we can assume that the typical reader has a good idea of how to handle a soldering iron, leaded, and even unleaded components, it’s unlikely that the same reader can handle a suture set or has access to relatively expensive physiological monitoring equipment.

While these assumptions may be correct, this doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t explore bioelectronics or biomechatronics using other resources. If you’re still in school, sign up for biology courses — especially those focusing on physiology. If you’re out of school and still curious, take a look at Guyton’s Textbook of Physiology. Start with the chapter/system that most interests you and go from there.  NV