Coming off successful field testing on monkeys, scientists announced that paralyzed people may be able to walk again with a recently developed wireless brain implant. Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) have released its results from a collective research together with Brown University researchers conducted on monkeys with spinal cord injuries that can regain control of their non-functional limbs using a wireless brain implant. The monkeys were implanted with a neuro-prosthetic interface that served as a wireless connection point between the spine and brain by decoding the walking related brain activity and sending out signals to the spinal cord using electrodes that stimulated neural pathways and leg muscles. This completely simulated the brain’s ability to send signals to the body’s different parts in the same manner.
With this wireless interface, scientists were able to use partial spinal cord lesion for treating two rhesus monkeys. Each of them was treated with one leg paralyzed by a partial spinal cord lesion. Thus, monkeys were able to get new spinal implants that were connected with a wireless Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). The BCI is a small series of electrodes that sit on the surface animal’s motor cortices that emerge from their head and registers basic signals emitted by the brain like the signal to move. The signals are then sent to the spinal implant without any delays as there is no trouble of wires involved that might restrict their movement. In just one week one of the two monkeys reclaimed the control of the paralyzed leg without any training on the ground or on a treadmill. The other monkey took two weeks to recover and reached the same point similar to the first monkey. According to EPFL neuroscientist and research head Gregoire Courtine, “We developed an implantable, wireless system that operates in real-time and enabled a primate to move freely without the constraint of wired electronics.” Courtine added that, “We understood how to extract brain signals that encode flexion and extension movements of the leg with a mathematical algorithm.
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We then linked the decoded signals to the stimulation of specific hotspots in the spinal cord that induced the walking movement,” While the brain and spinal cord both can recover from small injuries, more severe and major damage to the spinal cord and its nerves are usually semi-permanent to permanent. Treatment and physical therapy can take months and even years just for a toe or foot to just move a fraction. However, for the first time it has become possible to overcome this severe damage without physical treatments. Unlike previous studies in the same domain, which relied upon stem cell therapy, chemical, and electrical stimulation of the spine, this latest study allows the creation of a link between the brain’s decoding and the spine’s stimulation. If this groundbreaking discovery could be tested successfully on humans, the medical implications will be far too staggering to contemplate. Perhaps all that stuff in sci-fi will become realistic lore after all.