Bridging a Spinal Injury with Electronics Offers Hope to Paralysis

Science is a vital element to the exploration and development of a range of subjects and techniques, one such field is of course the medical profession, huge leaps and bounds have been made over the last decade or so. Now, Scientists at “Case Western Reserve University in Ohio have unveiled a technique that has enabled them to incorporate electronics with the aim of helping a paralysed man’s spinal injury, permitting him to use an implant in his brain to move his arm and hand”.

Robert Kirsch, who is a biomedical engineer at Case Western explained that this is the first timesignals collected in the brain have been conveyed directly to electrodes placed inside someone’s arm to restore movement”. The end goal is eventually to be in a position whereby a wireless system is introduced with the aim of transmitting brain signals through the air to electronics sewn into the limbs of paralysed people, thereby restoring the ability to carry out simple daily tasks.

It’s fascinating yet somewhat complicated but I will persist, the study results so far have indicated that the volunteers movements are still rough and as yet not as coordinated as an able-bodied person’s would be. But it’s remarkable to think that a person who is paralysed is able to control their own body and to stimulate muscles in a specific way to make them move.

Volunteers who have undertaken brain implant studies have previously attempted rudimentary tasks which have included moving a computer cursor.  This research had moved up a notch after a different Ohio man with partial arm paralysis received a brain implant and was able to mentally “open and close his hand”. This latest case is different as the current volunteer has a spinal injury that prevents him from moving or opening his arms at all.

So, in the words of Kryten, aka Robert Llewellyn, how did they do it? Now, this is the uber (not that one) complicated bit. It all started 9 months ago after surgeons implanted two bunches of silicon electrodes, called Utah arrays, into the volunteer’s motor cortex. (The Motor Cortex is the part of the brain where movements are planned) “Wires from each array then emerged from the skull through metal ports before connecting to computers that interpret the signals”.

To complete the bridge, doctors then inserted more than 16 fine wires into the volunteer’s right arm and hand. “Electrical impulses sent to those electrodes caused different muscles to contract, creating movement in the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, an approach known as functional electrical stimulation, or FES.

According to Robert Kirsch, the volunteer is able to accurately control a computer simulation of his wired-up arm using his brain signals, the challenging part is moving his real arm under brain control since it has been paralysed for so long and therefore the muscles have considerably weakened.

It’s certainly fascinating and opens up a vast array of possibilities for providing hope to paralysed individuals, the dream for scientists is to be able to offer a paralysed person the chance to undertake normal activities, I.e. walking around a room etc. Of course, this vision is as yet in the distant future, but every development provides a new possibility which in turn moves the technology and also understanding forward. We could be looking into a future whereby it is indeed possible to provide a workaround to Paralysis.