Device That Defies Paralysis Under Development

Researchers want to be able to bypass the spinal cord

An interesting new medical device currently being developed by researchers at the Northwestern University, in the US, has the potential to defy paralysis in people who thought they would never be able to walk again.

The instrument works by bypassing the damaged spinal cord, and relaying electrical impulses from the brain to muscles directly. Usually, spinal injuries occurring due to trauma or other accidents prevent people from using their lower limbs, confining them to wheelchairs.

But the spinal cord is just an organized conduit for delivering neural signals from the brain, along nerves, to various destinations within the body. There is nothing preventing scientists from attempting to replicate these transport pathways artificially.

In a new series of experiments conducted at the university, members of the research team were able to restore complex hand movements to monkeys who had suffered spinal injuries. If this achievement can be translated on humans, then the experts may have solved the problem of paralysis, at least partially.

The medical device uses functional electrical stimulation (FES) to deliver the necessary electrical signals, say investigators from the NU Feinberg School of Medicine. Details of how it works were published in the latest issue of the top scientific journal Nature.

“What we have done is to take these signals directly from the brain. The hope for the future is that the device can be tested on, and perhaps aid, paralyzed patients,” Feinberg professor of physiology, Dr. lee Miller, explains.

The scientist, who is also the lead investigator on this project, conducted the work using funds provided by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He explains that monkeys in the study were able to use the neuroprosthesis to lift, clutch and release a ball nearly as efficiently as they normally would.

By combining FES and a computer-brain interface system, the team basically gave the monkeys the ability to move their hands without using nerves in the spinal cord, by simply thinking about what they wanted to do.

The team now plans to start work on miniaturizing the neuroprosthesis, and then proceed towards analyzing potential applications on humans.

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