Wireless Brain and Spine Implants Enable Paralyzed Monkeys to Walk Again

Scientists hope new technology will eventually help in human rehabilitation

Wireless Brain and Spine Implants Enable Paralyzed Monkeys to Walk Again
Image: Pixabay
November 10, 2016

Scientists have developed implants that may one day help paralyzed people learn to walk again.

"The complex circuitry connecting the brain to important muscles in the body may hold the key to helping paralyzed patients get up and walk," ConsumerAffairs reports.

A group of scientists working internationally discovered that implanting electrodes in a non-injured part of the spine may re-open the path from the brain to the muscles in the legs.

The researchers performed experiments with two monkeys who had become temporarily paralyzed in one leg. The scientists claim that after the electrodes were implanted, the monkeys were able to get up and walk. They believe that humans may be able to use this technology within just 10 years.

However, as researcher Grégoire Courtine, who specializes in repairing the spinal cord at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, told The New York Times (NYT), the objective is to improve rehabilitation, not fix paralysis like a science fiction novel.

"People are not going to walk in the streets with a brain-spine interface," he said.

One of the reasons that the technology does not constitute a "miracle fix for paralysis" is that the impulses it sends are for extending and bending the leg at the correct time to fit into a four-legged walk—not other, finer movements using changes in direction or getting around obstacles. In addition, the two-legged gait used by humans involves different challenges regarding balance than those experienced by animals that walk on four legs.

David Borton, one of the primary authors of the study who works at Brown University, developed the wireless sensor in his previous doctoral work with other colleagues before participating in the study. The sensor, in conjunction with micro electrodes, records and sends impulses in the portion of the brain where signals to move the leg come from. According to Borton, one reason why the system might be beneficial in rehabilitating patients is that it makes the remaining connections between portions of the spinal cord and the injured leg stronger.

The scientists believe that there may be an additional use for the new technology, reports ConsumerAffairs: re-growing damaged circuits. However, the electrodes involved have certain limitations necessitating more research.