Paralysis is dramatically more widespread than researchers previously thought. Paraplegics can be our family, neighbors, and friends. About 1.9 percent of the U.S. population reported they were living with paralysis. Specifically, 5,596,000 people in the US were described as living with a central nervous system condition causing an incapacity to move the upper or lower areas of the body.
But new research that has allowed paralyzed monkeys to walk again is beginning to show hope for the future of clinic research in treating paraplegia.
According to the researchers at Springer Nature, in the absence of major injuries, signals originating in the motor cortex of the brain are relayed down the spine to the lumbar region, which consists of a network of neurons that stimulate the leg muscles. However, when there is an injury to the spine, this communication can be disrupted, leaving the brain unable to communicate with the lower extremities leading to paralysis.
A Cure for Paralysis?
Amazingly, paralyzed rhesus monkeys with significant spinal damage were able to walk again less than six days after suffering crippling injuries thanks to a new brain-spine interface developed by researchers. Using tactically positioned electrical implants, the technology can bypass the damaged area of the spine—or the broken signal points—and allow signals from the brain to travel to the legs and feet.
Researchers placed an electrode over the motor cortex of monkeys with spinal injuries to record the signals originating in this part of the brain when the animals attempted to walk. This neural activity was then wirelessly relayed to a control computer that detects signals for muscle movement such as flexion and extension.
Once these brain signals had been decoded and interpreted, the computer transmitted the codes to an electrode placed in the lumbar region of the monkeys’ spines, below the injury, which then electrically stimulated precise networks of neurons, allowing the leg muscles to contract. Essentially the computer acts almost as a bridge to connect the brain’s signals and relay them to the appropriate muscles, bypassing the injury site of broken signal connection. Watch the video below to learn more.
“The primate was able to walk immediately once the brain-spine interface was activated. No physiotherapy or training was necessary,” says co-researcher Erwan Bezard. This groundbreaking research has now allowed for the approval of further studies involving the brain-spine interface in humans. This means that this brain-spine interface system could represent a major step forward in the treatment of paralysis conditions.
What’s the Future of this Technology?
In a statement, study co-author Grégoire Courtine explained that “this is the first time that neuro-technology restores locomotion in primates,” but cautioned the public that “…there are many challenges ahead, and it may take several years before all the components of this intervention can be tested in people.”
In the US alone, spinal cord injuries alone cost roughly $40.5 billion annually, which is a 317 percent increase from costs estimated in 1998. Paraplegics are often unable to afford health insurance that sufficiently covers the complications that are frequently associated with these conditions.
Regardless, this research is unprecedented, and if further human trials prove successful, the condition of life in paralyzed people could be radically improved in the decades to come.
Jackson, A. (2016, November 10). Faculty of 1000 evaluation for A brain-spine interface alleviating gait deficits after spinal cord injury in primates. Springer Nature, 539, 284-287. doi:10.3410/f.726945983.793525783