A cure for paralysis could finally be on its way as scientists have started to research on a new form of brain implant which could one day allow people with paraplegia (paralysis of the legs and lower body, typically caused by spinal injury or disease) to regain control of their legs.
The main research has taken place at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland where professor of neuroprosthetics, Grégoire Courtine, has made it his mission to reverse paralysis. In a study published in November 2016, Grégoire and his team demonstrated how the movement of a monkey was affected with and without a brain and a spinal implant.
The first image below, shows that when the BSI (Brain-Spinal Interface System) is turned off, a paralyzed monkey is only able to drag its rear foot. But when the BSI is turned on, as seen in the second image, the monkey walks in an almost normal manner.
The brain of the paralyzed monkey understood signals related to muscle movement but was unable to make any use of them and could not instruct the muscles to actually move. But, by installing a recording device beneath the monkey’s skull, a pad of electrodes around the monkey’s spinal cord and a wireless connection that joined the two devices resulted in a system that read the monkey’s intention to move and then transmitted it immediately in the form of bursts of electrical stimulation to its spine.
Researchers at Newcastle University also tried a similar experiment in which they managed to repair a monkey’s paralysed hand by connecting its spinal cord to hi-tech software. A monkey was required to pull on a disc before and after a spinal cord stimulation system was turned on. The monkeys in the experiment were temporarily paralysed using a drug that wore off in two hours.
A video detailing the experiment can be seen below:
While these experiments are optimistic, challenges still remain. Turning neural prosthetics into something that helps paralyzed people has not been easy and technology remains too complex to to use outside of the laboratory. That does not mean that scientists have given up. Grégoire Courtine is hiring medical device-makers to develop a commercial device out of spinal implant. His colleague, Stéphanie Lacour is working on making soft and flexible electrodes modelled after the dura matter, the membrane that covers the spinal cord and brain. If scientists could overcome these challenges we could be at the brink of a medical breakthrough.