Neuroscientists are making tremendous progress in their quest to restore movement in patients with spinal cord injuries using brain implants.

French neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine was observing a macaque monkey aggressively hunching towards the end of the treadmill it was on. His team of researchers had slit halfway through the monkey’s spinal cord, so its right leg was paralyzed. Courting was now trying to get the animal to walk. He and his team had placed a recording device under its skull, which touched the motor cortex. They then stitched a pad of electrodes around the monkey’s spinal cord, just below the cut. A wireless connection was able to join the recording device with the electrodes.

The outcome: a system that picked up the animal’s intention to move its leg and went on to transmit this message via bursts of electrical impulses to its spine. Before long, the monkey began to move his right leg. He extended and flexed and then did it again. The monkey hobbled forward. “The monkey had a thought, and all of a sudden, he started walking,” recalls a jubilant Courtine, a neuroscience professor at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland.
Recently, lab animals and a number of people have shown that they could control a robotic arm or computer cursor with their thoughts due to a brain implant being wired up to a machine. Researchers are now beginning to take that very important next step in reversing paralysis. By wirelessly connecting brain-reading technology to electrical stimulators placed on the body, they are creating a “neural bypass system,” according to Courtine. This allows people’s thoughts to move their limbs again. 

Wireless neurocommunication device
Wireless neurocommunication device on a skull.

A quadriplegic man in middle age who cannot move anything except his head and one shoulder allowed doctors at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio to implant two tiny recording devices in his brain, the same type that Courtine used in monkeys. Smaller than a stamp and made of silicon, they swarm with a hundred metal probes no thicker than hairs that “listen” while neurons fire their commands.

To create the quadriplegic’s bypass, the team at Case, led by Bolu Ajiboye and Robert Kirsch, also placed over 16 fine electrodes directly into the arm and hand muscles of the man. A video was made of the experiment, which shows the man slowly bringing his arm up with the aid of a spring-loaded type of armrest. While doing this he willed his hand to move, opening and closing it. He was also able to raise a cup holding a straw to his mouth. Without the bypass system, he cannot make any of these movements.

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Try not moving your arms or hands for an entire day. You can sit on them if you want. Just try it. This will tell you how shattering it would be to have a spinal cord injury. There is no way you can wipe your nose or caress your child. “But with this,” says Courtine as he picks up a coffee cup and brings it to his lips using the exaggerated motions of an actor, “your life is changed.”

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The results of the Case experiment have still not been published in a medical journal. They form one part of broader research using implanted electronic devices to restore various abilities and senses. Along with treating paralysis, neuroscientists hope to use “neural prosthetics” in an effort to reverse blindness. Chips would be placed right in the eye. They are also trying to restore the memories of Alzheimer’s patients, using Memory Implants”.

They are certain this could work. Cochlear implants are used to bring sound to the deaf. They use a microphone for relaying signals to the auditory nerve. This simply routes around the parts that don’t work in the inner ear. Every month is seems, there are new videos being posted on the Internet that go viral of surprised deaf children hearing the sound of their mother’s voice for the first time. 

 If you or a loved one has been paralyzed due to another's negligence and would like to speak with a spinal cord injuries attorney, please contact us. We are here to answer your questions and discuss how to protect your legal rights.

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Published on behalf of O'Connor, Runckel & O'Malley LLP

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