Each year, thousands of people lose function of their limbs due to spinal cord injury or stroke. While the neurons in the brain and the ones that signal the muscle to move still exist, a connection between the two has been severed. In addition to being logistically challenging, the inability to walk can have a profound effect on a person's emotional well-being.
The National Science Foundation has just invested $16 million over the next four years toward the development of an implant that can restore function to paralyzed limbs by effectively replacing the neural connection that has been lost. The idea is that an implant in the brain will send a signal to another implant in the limb, giving it the impulse it needs to move.
"When Christopher Reeve sustained a spinal cord injury due to a fall from his horse, his brain circuits were still intact and able to form the intention to move, but unfortunately the injury prevented that intention from being conveyed to the spinal cord," Rajesh Rao from the University of Washington explained in a news release. "Our implantable devices aim to bridge such lost connections by decoding brain signals and stimulating the appropriate part of the spinal cord to enable the person to move again."
The first step is to gain proof of concept, showing that an artificial implant would be capable of stimulating the limb correctly. It is expected to be five years before this aspect of development is complete. Within a decade, there could be a working prototype ready for use in humans.
Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of the intended device isn't just that it will provide the necessary impulses in order for the paralyzed limb to move, but could actually re-teach the body how to make a new connection on its own. This is dependent on the brain's plasticity: the ability for the brain to adapt and change. Unlike exoskeletons and other devices in development to assist people with paralysis to regain function, this would effectively heal their condition.
As Rao, one of the scientists who will spend the next several years consumed with this project explains, this technology has the opportunity to increase the quality of life for a large number of people.
"There's a huge unmet need, especially with an aging population of baby boomers, for developing the next generation of medical devices for helping people with progressive or traumatic neurological conditions such as stroke and spinal cord injury," Rao stated.
Cover image via: University of Washington