We are starting to hear more and more stories about breakthrough technology geared toward reversing paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries. The test results coming back from these experimental trials have given scientists and doctors hope that we will be able to see patients with these injuries on their feet again one day.
Within the past few months, new technology has been released from a team led by Dr. Gregoire Courtine at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in which a wireless neural prosthetic is implanted into the spinal cord of paralyzed monkeys. This teams groundbreaking results showed the monkeys starting to regain control of their paralyzed lower limb not too long after their injury had occurred.
The system Courtine’s team built, detects the signals coming from the patients brain to collaborate with their limbs. With this new technology, no external machines or stimulation of the patients leg muscles is required to help them walk.
This is a huge breakthrough because it means the technology can be used by the patient without the constant assistance and supervision of a doctor or specialist. Instead of attempting to repair the damages done to the spinal cord and pathways responsible for sending the brain signals to the limbs, these scientists have made an implant that “works as a bridge between the brain and the legs.”
This implant imitates the distinctive signals that normally start in the motor cortex of the brain and move down the spinal cord into the lumbar region. Once arrived, these signals activate the muscles in the legs, allowing an individual to walk. The system works like this:
- It is set up with almost 100 electrodes implanted with an artificial interface in the brains motor cortex.
- This interface is linked to a recording device that measures the spiking of electrical activities within the brain controlling leg movements.
- Signals are then sent by the device to a computer that decodes the instructions onto another group of electrodes implanted in the lower spinal cord near the location of the injury.
- When the second group of electrodes receives this information, it signals the corresponding muscle groups in the legs.
This is the first time neurotechnology and spinal cord stimulation have come together and successfully restored an individual’s ability to walk. “The system restored locomotor movements immediately, without training or re-learning,” said Tomislav Milekovic, a researcher at Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). As time passed, the monkeys’ conditions continued to improve, “suggesting the system had triggered neuroplasticity in the brain and damaged spinal cord.”
What This Means For The Future
With breakthroughs such as these, the kind of technology that can be created as a result is endless. Just within the past year, brain-machine interfaces “have allowed paralyzed patients to Google on a tablet with brainwaves, grasp objects using robotic surrogates, and control a variety of prosthetic hands and other devices.” In addition, this particular discovery has opened up a new door and it is very exciting to see what new ideas could be in the works because of it.
Courtine's system tackles a plethora of issues rather than 1 or 2, considering that the ability to walk consists of many elements. Walking isn’t just about making the legs take individual steps, one must be able to maintain balance and coordinate activity involving both sides of the legs as well. This is also the first time technology in this area allows the patient to be wireless, no longer hooked up to machinery by a bunch of wires.
The next step is to transfer this technology from monkeys to humans, which will not be an easy task. As we already know, monkeys are built differently, with 4 limbs instead of 2. Also, their injuries were “induced legions” made specifically for this study. Injuries that occur by accident are more complicated and therefore more difficult to figure into this equation. Furthermore, it takes a bit of time for the first demonstration of a study such as this to move onto clinical trials, usually around 4 to 5 years. If this is indeed the case, it is possible we could see the first human spinal prosthetic trials in the year 2020.
Courtine's team is moving onto the next wave of steps. They have begun testing parts of the technology on a group of patients in wheelchairs. Once all parts are refined and ready to transfer over to humans, he will be able to attempt the full system. There is still a ways to go, but there is no denying this step in technology is monumental. Courtine's system makes the prospect of walking for those who have been paralyzed appear to be something that we can expect in the foreseeable future.