AI News, Brain and Spine Implants Let a Paralyzed Monkey Walk Again

Brain and Spine Implants Let a Paralyzed Monkey Walk Again

Enabling someone with paralyzed legs to rise to their feet and walk again has long been considered impossible, the kind of bogus miracle promised by faith healers.

In the new field of bioelectronic medicine,doctors may soon make the miraculous a reality.A new experiment using paralyzed monkeys has shown the way toward that goal.

Researchers conducted a proof-of-concept study using two monkeys with partial spinal cord injuries, which prevented brain commands from reaching a back leg.

Both research projects are exciting examples of bioelectronic medicine, a new field that leverages neuroscientists’ growing ability to understand the electrical signals neurons use to communicate.

Neurons in the brain “fire” with electrical impulses that control every aspect of our bodies and behavior, and electrodes can pick up these patterns of pulses as they arise in the brain and course through the nervous system.

The brain-spine interface used in the monkeys didn’t directly stimulate specific neurons in the spinal cord to send commands down the leg nerves to the muscles.

Instead, the researchers sent the brain commands to what Courtine calls the “spinal brain,” a network of neurons in the lumbar spine that automatically controls the basic mechanism of walking.

“But it needs some instructions, and that’s what we’ve been able to provide with this interface.” There were engineering challenges aplenty in the effort to build a brain-spine interface that worked for freely moving monkeys.

They further developed decoders created by the BrainGate research consortium, which has made headlines over the last decade by using brain-computer interfaces to let paralyzed people control robotic arms and computer cursors.

Again, the researchers wanted a wireless system, so the monkeys wore little vests containing transmitters that sent the data through skin and tissue to a small pulse generator implanted in the muscles between the ribs.

Monkeys Regain Control Of Paralyzed Legs With Help Of An Implant

Six days later, Bloch and her colleagues switched on a device to pick up signals from the electrodes in the monkey's brain, pass them through a computer, and then send them to the electrodes in the spine.

In the past, researchers have focused on getting brain signals to control machines, like a robotic arm, but this experiment was about re-establishing control over the body itself.

'Here they're kind of closing the loop, where they're driving that stimulation based on activity decoded from the brain,' says Jen Collinger, a bioengineer at the University of Pittsburgh whose work focuses on getting paralyzed patients to operate robotic arms.

'It will take at least another decade in order to achieve the full translation in humans, with no guarantee whatsoever that it will be a successful endeavor,' says Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study.

pointed out that researchers have recently come up with some pretty incredible devices — like those allowing people to control computers and robots with their thoughts — but have not been able to create a self-contained, wireless connection between human brain and limb.

'It is therefore not unreasonable to speculate that we could see the first clinical demonstrations of interfaces between the brain and spinal cord by the end of the decade,' Jackson wrote, especially because the components described in the study already are approved for human use in Switzerland.

Reversing Paralysis

To do it, he and colleagues had installed a recording device beneath its skull, touching its motor cortex, and sutured a pad of flexible electrodes around the animal’s spinal cord, below the injury.

In recent years, lab animals and a few people have controlled computer cursors or robotic arms with their thoughts, thanks to a brain implant wired to machines.

They are wirelessly connecting the brain-reading technology directly to electrical stimulators on the body, creating what Courtine calls a “neural bypass” so that people’s thoughts can again move their limbs.

In videos of the experiment, the volunteer can be seen slowly raising his arm with the help of a spring-loaded arm rest, and willing his hand to open and close.

“But if you have this,” says Courtine, reaching for a red espresso cup and raising it to his mouth with an actor’s exaggerated motion, “it changes your life.” The Case results, pending publication in a medical journal, are a part of a broader effort to use implanted electronics to restore various senses and abilities.

Besides treating paralysis, scientists hope to use so-called neural prosthetics to reverse blindness with chips placed in the eye, and maybe restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2013: Memory Implants”).

“We keep pushing the limits, but it is an important question if this entire field will ever have a product.” Courtine’s laboratory is located in a vertiginous glass-and-steel building in Geneva that also houses a $100 million center that the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss funded specifically to solve the remaining technical obstacles to neurotechnologies like the spinal cord bypass.

Paralyzed Monkeys Learn to Walk Again With Brain Implant

A new brain implant device could be used to help paralyzed people walk again after it allowed non-human primates to regain control of their paralyzed legs.

“But there are many challenges ahead and it may take several years before all the components of this intervention can be tested in people.” The paper, published this week in the journal Nature, is now being followed up with a feasibility clinical study at Lausanne University Hospital, in order to test the therapeutic effects of the spine-part of the interface in people with spinal cord injuries.

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