A chip implanted into the brain of a spinal cord injury survivor now enables him to play Guitar Hero. The future is now when it comes to spinal cord injury research. With new breakthroughs every year, it’s possible we may see a cure for spinal cord injuries in the next few decades.
For Ian Burkhart, an implanted chip has proven life-changing. The same might one day be the case for many more SCI survivors.
A Chip That Reads Your Thoughts?
Ian Burkhart regained some movement thanks to a chip implanted in his brain. Overly simplistic accounts report that the chip reads his thoughts and relays them to his fingers. That’s not entirely inaccurate, but as with most scientific reporting, the science is a bit more complicated than it appears.
When Burkhart broke his neck in a diving accident, he lost all movement below his shoulders. Like most spinal cord injury survivors, the problem wasn’t a problem with his brain. The problem was the ability of brain signals to travel down a severed spinal cord and into Burkhart's limbs.
To circumvent this challenge, doctors implanted an electrode into Burkhart’s brain. The electrode reads signals in the brain linked to motion, then sends those signals into Burkhart’s arms. The device uses the same brain signals that once controlled Burkhart’s movements, but without the aid of his spinal cord.
The electrode isn’t reading Burkhart’s thoughts exactly, but his movements map so closely to his thoughts that it might seem like the electrode is a mind-reader.
This is just one more in a series of engineering trials that have used brain signals to control movement. Other research has used brain signals outside of the scalp to control hand movements, or adapted shoulder signals in one shoulder to send movement signals to another shoulder. Each of these projects operates according to a similar strategy: by training a device to understand electrical signals in the brain or another part of the body, that device can eventually interpret those signals. The spinal cord performs a similar function, but without all the training.
This means that engineers are creating an array of devices that can perform many of the same functions as a human spinal cord. Burkhart’s implant has restored his ability to play computer games, pour drinks, swipe credit cards, and grasp objects.
The Limitations of Current Research
Though enticing headlines report that electrodes and other devices can “read the thoughts” of spinal cord injury survivors, research isn’t there yet. These devices are imperfect, and have to be trained to read a SCI survivor’s thoughts. That means the devices may make errors, and don’t always offer the same seamless movement a survivor grew to expect from their spinal cord.
Despite these limitations, these marvels of engineering work for a wide range of spinal cord injury survivors. They can even help SCI survivors with extensively damaged limbs. As long as the brain is healthy enough to produce motion signals, there’s hope. For people with traumatic brain injuries to areas of the brain that control movement, however, implants and similar devices may not be an option.
Future Research Directions
So far, implants have only been able to recover movements in specific areas of the body. A complete restoration of motor skills remains elusive. Given the promise current research shows, we may see such a revolution in the next few years.
Devices that “read” brain signals are just one treatment revolutionizing spinal cord injury treatment. Other studies have shown promise for regenerating spinal cord neurons in animals, or using stem cells to grow new cells that help the brain work around an injured spinal cord. The right study, the right tweaks, and the right research subjects may be all that stands between today and a future without paralysis.
How Understanding Spinal Cord Injuries Empowers Better Treatment
We have such a strong understanding of spinal cord injuries now that it’s easy to forget how little we knew just a few decades ago. Understanding how spinal cord injuries work is vital to treating these injuries. If you need a primer, here’s what you need to know:
The spinal cord is the body’s relay station, sending signals between the brain and body. If the spinal cord is compressed, severed, or otherwise damaged, the signals can’t travel. In some cases, particularly if an infection damages the spinal cord or the spinal cord is only partially severed, the signals may be weaker, or only travel some of the time. For example, an SCI survivor might have a tingling sensation in their feet, but be unable to walk.
Spinal cord injury treatments fall into a few broad categories:
- Treatments that attempt to heal the spinal cord. These treatments are the holy grail of SCI treatment, since they cure the injury, potentially obviating the need for other treatments.
- Treatments that attempt to help the brain work around a spinal cord injury. Electrode implants are among these treatments, but so too are more traditional remedies such as physical therapy.
Spinal cord injuries remain unpredictable, and a small number of survivors spontaneously recover. Understanding what causes this phenomenon might be the next frontier of understanding SCI.
The Best Time to be a Spinal Cord Injury Survivor
For the 12,500 people who survive spinal cord injuries each year, it’s easy to feel anything but lucky. Yet spinal cord injuries used to be a death sentence. Even as recently as a few decades ago, it was common for doctors to refuse even to treat a spinal cord injury.
Now, people with spinal cord injuries live fulfilling, productive lives. They work, go to school, and raise children. They form new relationships, start nonprofits, and reach out to other spinal cord injury survivors. There is no better time to survive an SCI. Even for survivors of the most catastrophic injuries, assistive technologies make life more comfortable and support increased independence.
Research continues at a dizzying pace. All it takes is one breakthrough. That breakthrough could come tomorrow. Even if doctors never find a cure, quality of life will continue to improve, and a few lucky survivors like Ian Burkhart may stumble upon a treatment that changes their world.