One day, in the not-so-distant future, paralyzed people will be able to walk again using only their thoughts, thanks to a “holy grail” device called the “bionic spinal cord.”
If you think this sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, you’re not alone. The way it’s proposed to work is a marvel of modern medicine, one of its developers told ABC Australia.
“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time without damaging the brain is an amazing development,” said Professor Terry O’Brien, the head of medicine at Royal Melbourne Hospital and the University of Melbourne
The “bionic spinal cord” or stentrode is only the size of a paper clip, doesn’t require invasive surgery to be implanted, records brain activity and then turns those signals into electrical commands.
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The device is essentially a stent, which is inserted into an artery to expand it. Researchers have taken the stent, added some micro-electrodes and figured out a way to get it near a patient’s brain without cracking open the skull.
The “bionic spinal cord” works a bit like a cardiac pacemaker, which is inserted without open-heart surgery, neurologist Thomas Oxley told Discovery News.
“The cardiac pacemaker is essentially the classic bionic device — it goes inside a vein, it sits next to the heart and it works for a lifetime. And we are essentially trying to do the exact same thing for the brain. Go up a vein, leave it there, and have a lifetime of recordings coming out of it.”
The electrodes would record the activity needed for movement. These signals would then be translated into commands. These commands would stimulate the limbs to move using “mobility assist device” like an exoskeleton or a wheelchair.
And the paper-clip sized “bionic spinal cord” could be inserted during a simple surgery.
Similar devices actually “punch” into the gray matter itself, which is risky. But this device only requires surgeons to inflict a “small nick” in a blood vessel in the neck and then push it inside. This particular blood vessel is located just above the motor cortex, which controls movement.
“We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery,” Oxley said.
The stentrode has already worked in a sheep, whose motor cortex signals were recorded. In 2017, a small group of spinal cord patients will have the stentrode implanted to test how it works in humans.
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Researchers caution that the “bionic spinal cord” won’t be available for some time, but when it is, could be in widespread use, said neurophysiologist Professor Clive May. This is just the next step in the main research area in the treatment of paralysis, called brain-machine interface. So far, much progress has been made.
In 2014, U.S. scientists watched as a monkey used his thoughts, read and translated by electrodes and a computer, to move the arm of a fellow monkey who was completely sedated. A couple years before that, scientists collaborated to help a paralyzed woman raise a cup to her lips using her thoughts to manipulate a robot arm.
The “bionic spinal cord” could help many people, not just those suffering from paralysis, but those with epilepsy, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. And it could help injured vets, especially the tens of thousands in this country coming home with spinal cord injuries or without limbs, May added.
“These devices will not only be able to be used to drive an exoskeleton or a wheelchair, but the aim is to get devices that will be able to move a bionic arm as well so that will give people much more freedom to live a normal life.”
[Image via Pavel Chagochkin/Shutterstock]