Do we already possess the technology for the paralyzed to walk? If so, some 500,000 people a year who suffer spinal cord injury could potentially be impacted. Hope may now be within reach, and sooner than you might have expected. Thanks to a paralyzed monkey and a team of researchers, the answer sounds like a yes; and it was a discovery made by utilizing components which have already been approved for use, in humans.
At first glance, the monkey walking along the treadmill in the lab belonging to Marco Capogrosso and fellow scientists looked like any other monkey found in research laboratories the world over. Surrounded by monitoring equipment, covered in a strange mass of electrodes and wires, it ambulated unremarkably along at a slow, but steady, stride. It seemed content enough; just out for a stroll.
For six days prior, that monkey had been unable to use its hind leg to walk because of a partially severed spinal cord.
The team had been assembled for the project with the original goal of finding a way to re-establish the connection between the brain and the legs after a spinal cord injury. Other solutions to the problem of paralysis are also already being explored, but most of those require the use of expensive robotic components and exoskeletons Was there another way?
The team’s ingenious solution was the brain-spine interface, or BSI. A tiny electrode is placed in the part of the brain that controls the muscle movements of the leg, to record the neural impulses The information is then wirelessly transmitted in real-time to a stimulator which has been implanted below the level of the spinal injury. The stimulator then interprets that information into instructions to the muscles, which is passed along to them by a specially designed electrode on the spinal cord.
The way that the brain controls the limbs can be likened to it using a landline telephone to communicate with the muscles With a spinal cord injury, that telephone line is damaged, so the phone calls are unable to go through. Lacking instructions, the muscles are useless. The BSI is akin to giving the brain a cell phone. It is now able to wirelessly communicate with the muscles on the other side of the damaged area of the cable. Now that the muscles know what to do, they follow the brain’s lead just like before.
Now comes the eternity until it’s widely available, right? Actually, that’s one of most amazing things about this discovery; the components have already been used in humans The BSI was designed using technology that’s already available. In fact, human clinical trials are currently underway. They won’t have results from those trials right away, but the device may be widely available within the next 10 years.
The affirmative answer to the question posed at the outset has tremendous possibility. Hundreds of thousands of lives a year could be changed for the better. Countless millions of dollars, previously destined for lifetime paralytic care, would be saved. 50, as we wait for the results of clinical trials, listening intently for the steps of paralyzed limbs, hope can be found in thinking about a monkey, in a lab, walking.
References: Capogrosso, Maco, et al. “A brain-spine interface alleviating gait deficits after spinal cord injury in primates.”Journal article. Nature. Springer Nature, 10 Nov., 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2016
Dormehl, Luke. “Brain-Spinal Interface Could One Day Help Paralyzed People Walk Again.” Blog article. Digital Trends DT Press, 11 Nov., 2016. Web. 12 Nov., 2016