Neural Implant Provides Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries

Neural Implant Provides Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries

Neural Implant Provides  Hope for Spinal Cord Injuries

The World Health Organization estimates that somewhere between 250,000 to 500,000 people suffer a spinal cord injury each year worldwide. For these people, the news that a brain implant allowed a paralyzed monkey to walk again is thrilling.

A new study published in the science journal Nature describes a new neuroprosthetic interface that acts as a wireless bridge between the brain and the spine, bypassing the injury. Called the “brain-spine interface,” the system restored movement in the paralyzed right legs of two rhesus monkeys. The system was developed by neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine and his colleagues at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, along with help from researchers at the University of Bordeaux, Motac Neuroscience, and the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV).

Paralysis happens when a spinal cord lesion prevents brain signals from the motor cortex (the part of the brain responsible for movement) from reaching neurons that activate muscles. Regrettably, the nerves of the spinal cord do not heal spontaneously after injury, and scientists haven’t had much luck using various pharmacological and regenerative techniques.

The brain-spine interface overcomes a damaged connection by bridging the spinal cord injury—and it does so in real-time and via wireless technology. The neuroprosthetic device implanted in the monkey’s brain correctly interprets activity generated by the motor cortex, and relays this information to a system of electrodes placed over the surface of the spinal cord, just below the injury. A burst of just a few volts, delivered at the right location, triggers specific muscles in the legs. Monkeys implanted with the device were able to walk within six days of the spinal cord injury. 

Excitingly, the new system might be able to leverage the power of the brain’s plasticity; connections between two neurons are given a boost when both are active at the same time. It’s possible that this device could strengthen surviving motor pathways, further contributing to rehabilitation. 

“For the first time, I can imagine a completely paralyzed patient able to move their legs through this brain-spine interface,” noted Jocelyne Bloch, the lead neurosurgeon on the project”. It may be years before clinical trials can begin for humans, but this latest breakthrough marks an important step in that direction.

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