The brave new world of biohacking (Updated with video & MIT)

“You can hack a computer, you can hack a computer chip, you can hack a cell phone … because they are not complicated. But biology is an order of magnitude that we don’t understand”

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PITTSBURGH — In the basement of a suburban two-story house on a quiet road just outside Pittsburgh, six mostly self-taught scientists tinker with an assortment of computer parts and electric equipment. They plan one day on becoming cyborgs — a future that may be closer than you think.

They are Grindhouse Wetware — three men and three women — and they describe themselves as a “ragtag group of programmers, engineers and enthusiasts” who build cybernetic devices. They find inspiration in both current technology and science fiction.

“I don’t want to go to space in a spaceship. I want to be a spaceship,” said Tim Cannon, Grindhouse’s 34-year-old co-founder whose basement serves as the group’s headquarters and scientific lab.

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Today, at an international body-modification conference in Essen, Germany, Grindhouse will make history as the first in the DIY-science community — i.e., not affiliated with any academic institution or corporation — to develop and implant an interactive electronic device in a human being. The implantable biosensor is called Circadia and is slightly smaller than a credit card but thicker than the average paperback. Though it will cause the skin to bulge slightly, it won’t obstruct any vital functions or impact skeletal function. It is designed to sit between the skin and muscles in the forearm, where it will track and aggregate weeks of data on the person’s body temperature. Once synced to a smartphone, it will transmit that data to it via Bluetooth. To add to the coolness factor, the device has three red LEDs that glow through the skin that may be turned on and off remotely with the user’s phone.

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Last year, molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen put the biohacker movement on the map when she gave a TED talk about Genespace, the DIY science lab she opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in late 2010. Genespace is one of about 40 (and counting) independent citizen-science groups in the world— more than 20 of them in the United States.

Grinders are an extreme group in the biohacker movement who believe in using their own bodies for scientific experimentation. The name comes from the computer-gaming term “grinding” — playing until one is able to break the code of the game. In the 2007 science-fiction comic series “Doktor Sleepless,” grinders use extreme body modification as a way to create a group identity.

“There’s this saying in ‘Doktor Sleepless’ — ‘Where’s my jet pack?'” says Lucas Dimoveo, who moved from New York City to Pittsburgh after meeting Cannon and other Grindhouse members on a grinder discussion board. “It’s essentially like, ‘Where’s the future that I was expecting?’ There’s no flying cars, there’s no cyborg bombs or lasers, so I guess we’ll have to build it ourselves.”

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When the first pacemaker was implanted in a patient in 1958, it helped the medical industry realize the impact such devices could have on medicine, says Anthony Turner, Ph.D., head of the Biosensors and Bioelectronics Centre at Linkoping University in Sweden.

He says the industry isn’t far off from the so-called magic bullet that could rid the body of diseases such as cancer. But such innovations are more likely to be carried out at the molecular level instead of through cybernetic infrastructure. “It’s not ‘Fantastic Voyage’ with a mini submarine,” he says.

In recent years, some of the most promising advances in biosensors have involved the treatment of diabetes. Just last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the MiniMed 530G, also known as the artificial pancreas. Developed by Medtronic, the first company to manufacture the pacemaker, the artificial pancreas tracks blood glucose and accordingly adjusts levels of insulin, which it delivers through a tube inserted into the abdomen. The monitor and dispenser are worn externally, usually on a belt.

Another complex medical device, cochlear implants, earned FDA approval in the mid-1980s and have been used on more than 200,000 deaf people worldwide — including author Michael Chorost, who received cochlear implants after being diagnosed with sudden-onset deafness more than a decade ago.

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 On October 18, Tim Cannon became the first person from the DIY science community to have implanted a biosensor device, Circadia, in his forearm. The procedure took place in an undisclosed location in Essen, Germany, where Cannon was attending an annual body modification conference.

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“The procedure didn’t take too long, maybe about 10 minutes and there are about 10 stitches in his arm,” said Danielle Greaves, a member of Grindhouse Wetware, the DIY biohacking lab in Pittsburgh that engineered Circadia. “Everything is going better than expected, (Tim) is healing really well and has an appointment to see some local implant artists to get it checked out and make sure he is still on the right track.” Cannon said of the implant, “We are still cautious and guarded about what lies in our future, but pretty excited to see where we will go from here.”

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The next step, say the members of Grindhouse, is to upgrade the device to reduce it in size (currently, it is about as large as a credit card but as thick as a paperback novel), make it charge more efficiently, and add “some more useful sensors” on it. The team also wants to start working on NorthStar, another device to be implanted in the hand that can help the person “feel” where north is, and what direction they should be going, like a GPS.

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‘I think that our environment should listen more accurately and more intuitively to what’s happening in our body,’ explains cannon. ‘if, for example, I’ve had a stressful day, the circadia will communicate that to my house and will prepare a nice relaxing atmosphere for when I get home.’ unlike other wearable tech like nike’s fuelband bracelet, the open-source device gives the user full control of how data is collected and used. communications for now include body temperature readings, which are enabled via bluetooth and an internet connection.

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Update by Cannon

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MIT develops ‘wristify’ thermoelectric bracelet to regulate body temperature

A group of students at MIT have developed ‘wristify’, a thermoelectric bracelet capable of changing human body temperature. the device works by monitoring air and skin temperature and sending pulses of hot or cold waves to the wrist to help keep cool. with its ultimate aim to reduce the energy consumption of buildings — by cooling and heating an individual instead of a building, like traditional air-conditioning systems — the concept has the capabilities to alter body temperature at a rate of 0.4 degrees celsius per second.

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 ‘buildings right now use an incredible amount of energy just in space heating and cooling,’ says sam shames, co-inventor of wristify. ‘in fact, all together this makes up 16.5 percent of all U.S. primary energy consumption. we wanted to reduce that number, while maintaining individual thermal comfort. we found the best way to do it was local heating and cooling of parts of the body.’ the team estimates that if the device stops one building from adjusting its temperature by even just 1 degree celsius, it could roughly save 100 kilowatt-hours per month.

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what we developed is a wearable, wrist-based technology that leverages human sensitivity, can detect and perfect rates of change, and can maintain overall thermal comfort while reducing the need to heat and cool buildings,’shames adds. the prototype consists of a custom copper-alloy-based heat sink (a component that lowers a device’s temperature by dissipating heat) and can be powered for up to eight hours by a lithium polymer battery.

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