News Stories

How to Get a New Face

When Jim Alexander backed out of a convenience store where he?d stopped for a cup of coffee in 1996, he crashed his car, which burned for 20 minutes before rescuers could get him out. Burns disfigured his face so badly that the other diners at his regular restaurant asked him not to come back. Alexander, age 60, retreated to his home, partially blinded and disfigured ?like a freak in a sideshow,? despite 38 surgeries.

Then he found Bob Barron a former disguise expert for the CIA, who helps seriously disfigured people blend back into society by designing prosthetic devices that look so real, most people don?t notice them. This sounds like the plot of the recent Tom Cruise movie ?Vanilla Sky,? but in this case, the story is real.

Before meeting Barron, Alexander stayed in his home, watching T.V. or listening to books on tape. His daughters helped take care of him, paying his bills, buying his groceries and keeping him company. ?I feel like a prisoner in my own home,? he said before he got his new face. ?I stand outside and I can hear the traffic go by. And I can hear the power plant over there where I worked. And I think back, the people I worked with. And you just feel like you?re stopped and the world?s going around you.?

Barron had to build an entire face and hair from photos of Alexander?s old face, and suspend it above his fragile skin grafts. A trial run in public went well, and nobody seemed to notice Alexander?s mask. Soon, he was able to visit his former workplace. He now goes out in public, and makes regular trips to a local coffee shop with his friends. Even with the mask, Jim can?t move his mouth because he doesn?t have enough muscle left in his lips, so Barron has made him a second mask that covers only the upper portion of his face, so he can drink coffee.

Alexander underwent another operation and now has near-perfect vision in one eye, which means he was able to see the mask for the first time?as well as the faces of his two grandchildren who were born since his accident.

Barron was trained as a painter, and he designs pores, veins and hair and skin imperfections into his silicone-layered creations?which have included fingers, hands, shoulders, ears and even entire faces. ?You have to know how to sculpt,? he says. ?You have to know chemicals. You have to know how to take impressions.?

Margaret Bowden lost her left eye to cancer, including much of the socket and surrounding facial area. Barron cast a mirror image from her good eye and created a prosthetic device that she can pop in whenever she goes out in public. People ?don?t even know it,? Bowden says.

Eight-year-old Brittany Hoyle was born without an ear. Now, even her father has trouble noticing. ?He says, ?Which ear is it??? she says. ?I see two ears when I look in the mirror.?

Kelly Green was an athletic 18-year-old college freshman when she was diagnosed with cancer, and she eventually lost a large portion of her shoulder and surrounding bone and muscle. She started to walk differently, which damaged her posture. Then Barron designed a new shoulder for her. ?It just looked like I was 18 again, before the cancer,? she says. ?He ended up with something that was breathable on the underneath side. It had my missing clavicle in it and everything. It looks spectacular.?

Barron?s creations normally cost $6,000 or more, but he donated his skills to help a pregnant Pakistani woman whose husband, a barber, disfigured her face and blinded her with a straight razor in a jealous rage. As part of a surgical team, Barron helped give Zahida Parveen prosthetic eyes, ears, and a nose. When the procedure was complete, she returned to Pakistan. ?She can?t see it, obviously,? says Nassim Ashraf, who worked on Parveen?s case for a Pakistani human rights group. ?But she then tells me what others have been telling her about her face. And she says, ?Well, you know, someone came to me and said that I look exactly like I did when I got married.? So, that must obviously make her feel very, very happy.?

Barron got into his profession by accident. He worked at the Pentagon as an art director for some Navy magazines. It was a low-level job and he got a low-level parking pass, far away from the Pentagon building. ?I forged a parking sticker and I parked where the admirals and the generals [park]?so I wouldn?t have to walk 15 minutes through the snow,? Barron says. He was caught and taken to court, where the judge wanted to know where he got his parking pass. ?I said, ?I made it, your honor,?? Barron says. ?He said, ?Damn good job.??

Barron later got a call from the CIA, which was looking for a forger. Barron believes the judge recommended him. The agency soon moved him from forgery to disguises, like mustaches and wigs, which were fairly crude back in the 1960s. Barron studied Hollywood make-up techniques, and his creations became more sophisticated. When he retired from the CIA after 24 years, he decided to help people by ?giving them back their identity.?

To see a photo of Jim Alexander in his mask, click here.

For decades, scientists and eye doctors have been trying to develop artificial eyes that would return sight to blind and visually impaired people. Companies such as Optobionics in Wheaton, Illinois have taken the first steps with tiny microchips that can mimic certain parts and functions of the human eye?such as the rods and cones, the sensors that convert light into electrical impulses in the retina, at the back of the eye.

Now scientists at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) in Tennessee believe they have a chip that can truly mimic the entire nerve system of the retina. At the heart of their artificial eye is a chip design called a cellular nonlinear network, or CNN. In the chip, individual computer circuits are connected to each other in a checkerboard design. Each connection can be given a mathematical ?weight? that ?describes? the relationship of the circuits to each other.

When the chip is exposed to images, each pixel or point of light in the image is sent to a specific cell in the chip. Mathematical algorithms can then manipulate each connection?s weight to produce different resulting images. One set of algorithms could help find the edges of an object in the image. Another set of algorithms could then find corners, while another set defines the contours. Larry Cooper, the program manager at ORNL, says, ?The time it takes a chip to [process a function] is about a microsecond.?

Frank Werblin, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California at Berkeley, says the next problem is figuring out how to connect the chip with the human brain. ?You have a million optic nerve fibers leaving your eyes, and each goes to specific part of the brain's cortex,? says Werblin. But he says no one knows just how many or exactly which ones are needed to produce an image that can be understood by the brain.

There?s also the question of how to connect silicon chips to human nerve cells?a process that?s being tried out with much simpler chips such as Optobionic?s artificial light sensors. David McComb, chief information officer with Optobionics, says they have successfully implanted the microchips into the retinas of six patients under a clinical trial approved by the FDA.

It will be some time before CNN chips can be implanted in humans. Right now, most CNN chips are just too big?about 1 or 2 square inches?and require too much power to be embedded in an eye.

Dr. Gerald Chader, chief science officer for the Foundation Fighting Blindness, believes it?s possible that some form of chip implants will be helping to improving failing eyes in five to 10 years. He says, ?Couple of years ago, every one thought this was pie-in-the-sky, Star Wars stuff.?

To learn more,click here. The food children eat might play a big role in their need to wear glasses. Diets high in refined starches such as breads and cereals increase insulin levels. This affects the development of the eyeball, making it abnormally long and causing short-sightedness, according to a team led by Loren Cordain, an evolutionary biologist at Colorado State University and Jennie Brand Miller, a nutrition scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Their theory could help explain the dramatic increase in myopia in developed countries over the past 200 years. It now affects 30 per cent of people of European descent. ?The rate of starch digestion is faster with modern processed breads and cereals,? says Brand Miller. In response to this rapid digestion, the pancreas pumps out more insulin. High insulin is known to lead to a fall in levels of insulin-like binding protein-3. This could disturb the delicate relationship between eyeball lengthening and lens growth. And if the eyeball grows too long, the lens can no longer flatten itself enough to focus a sharp image on the retina.

Bill Stell of the University of Calgary in Canada says, ?It wouldn?t surprise me at all. Those of us who work with local growth factors within the eye would have no problem with that -- in fact we would expect it.?

There is already evidence to support the theory. While fewer than one per cent of the Inuit and Pacific islanders had myopia early in the last century, these rates have now risen to 50 per cent. This has been blamed on the increase in reading following the sudden advent of literacy and compulsory schooling in these societies. But while reading may play a role, it does not explain why the incidence of myopia has remained low in societies that have adopted Western lifestyles but not Western diets, says Cordain.

?In the islands of Vanuatu they have eight hours of compulsory schooling a day,? he says, ?yet the rate of myopia in these children is only two per cent.? The difference is that Vanuatuans eat fish, yam and coconut rather than white bread and cereals. People are more likely to develop myopia if they are overweight or have adult-onset diabetes, both of which involve elevated insulin levels. Myopia has also been slower in children who increased their protein consumption.

So if you don?t want your kids to wear glasses, feed ?em lots of meat.

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