In the next year, 130,000 people will suffer spinal cord injuries (most of them occurring in auto accidents), and more than 90 percent of the victims will suffer at least partial paralysis. Research presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference in Chicago last week offers hope that victims may one day be able to control their own paralyzed limbs again. In the experiment, researchers developed a system that translates brain signals into complex muscle movements in real time. This system allowed monkeys with paralyzed a paralyzed arm to grasp a ball and place it in a target area.
“This is a big leap forward. They show the monkey using the ability to artificially contract his hand to actually pick up a ball,” said neuroscientist Krishna Shenoy of Stanford University. “I think it’s the first demonstration of a cortically controlled electrical stimulation system performing a task that would ultimately be useful for a human patient.”
Spinal cord injuries result in paralysis when signals from the brain can no longer reach muscles. But in many cases, the nerves and muscles in the limbs remain intact. Researchers know that electrical stimulation can trigger muscle contraction. In fact, some functional electrical stimulation (FES) devices have already been approved by the FDA to help with bladder control. Patients use residual muscle movement to control these devices. For example, an FES device might allow a person to grasp their hand by shrugging a shoulder; however, the person would have no conscious control over how tightly to grasp.
Brain implants – cortical implants, to be precise – might one day allow spine injury victims to control complex muscle movements. The brain implants would essentially translate thought into electrical stimulation. The recent experiment with monkeys shows that it is possible to translate brain activity linked to the movement of different muscles into an electrical stimulus for each of the five flexor muscles in the arm in real time. This enabled the monkey to grip the ball even though its arm was paralyzed.
“We can predict what the monkey is trying to do with his muscles and stimulate the muscles accordingly, essentially giving the monkey voluntary control through the computer instead of his nerves,” said neuroscientist Lee Miller of Northwestern University.
Human tests of this type of technology may happen soon. Another researcher at the recent conference presented research which showed that a paralyzed patient with a cortical implant can control a sophisticated computer model of an arm using conscious thought. Now, if scientists can combine cortical implants with FES implants, then it might be possible for paralyzed patients to regain at least some movement in their limbs. Currently, researchers are waiting for wireless technology to become available for the brain implants. Current cortical implants have protruding wires that increase the risk of infection and confine patients to one spot.
If you or a loved one has suffered a spinal cord injury, keep hope alive. Progress is made in spine injury research with each passing day. If you believe that someone else was at fault for the accident, you may be entitled to monetary compensation for expenses as well as pain and suffering. Contact a Georgia spinal cord injury attorney to ask about your legal rights. Call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule a free consultation.