A remarkable scientific breakthroughs in 2017 is showing incredibly promising results that could, in a decade or so, make paralysis an impermanent condition. This medical miracle has been accomplished thanks to a computer chip that acts as the bridge between the command center (the brain) and the control center (the spine). And in tests with monkeys, it has proved full recovery from paralysis.
According to the World Health Organization, every year approximately 250,000 to 500,000 people suffer spinal cord injuries that result in some type of long-term damage. Additionally, according to the World Heart Federation, about five million people who have strokes are left paralyzed each year.
Many of those struggling with paralysis are told that their condition will be debilitating and permanent for their entire life. However, with this new breakthrough, that may no longer be the case.
There are so many questions circling this amazing breakthrough. How does it work? How was this discovered? What does the procedure consist of? What’s the efficacy? And what does this mean for paraplegic and paralyzed people worldwide? So let’s dive in.
How Bidirectional Brain Implants Work to Reverse Paralysis
In order to understand the importance of this scientific breakthrough, we must first understand the basic science behind it.
When you want to pick up a cup, the command center of your body, your brain, sends electrical impulses to your arm and your hand to do just that. However, your hand will also send electrical impulses back to your brain to relay the information of the temperature, weight, and texture of the cup. This information allows your brain to know the correct grip strength, the ease of holding it, and the amount of time it can be held. It sends that information back to the hand.
This information is relayed back and forth through our nervous system. A spinal injury acts as a major break in the line of communication so that information cannot be sent back and forth and, therefore, hands or legs or fingers or toes do not know how to move so they become paralyzed.
This year, scientists aimed at re-bridging that gap between the brain and the breaking point in the central nervous system by using both a brain implant and a spine implant.
The Discovery of the Medically Miraculous Computer Chip
Gregoire Courtine, a professor at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, is the coauthor the new, promising study that successfully created this reconnection between the brain and the spinal corn. He and his team used monkeys to test this new technology. They lacerated halfway through the monkey’s spinal cord, paralyzing the right leg of the monkey. Then, they installed a small computer device beneath the monkey’s skull and on the motor cortex. They also installed another device—a sutured pad of flexible electrodes—right below the monkey’s injury, around the spinal cord. A wireless connection joined the two devices.
As MIT’s Technology Review wrote, this resulted in, “a system that read the monkey’s intention to move and then transmitted it immediately in the form of bursts of electrical stimulation to its spine. Soon enough, the monkey’s right leg began to move. Extend and flex. Extend and flex. It hobbled forward.”
Courtine and his team were ecstatic. He recalled, “the monkey was thinking, and then boom, it was walking.”
This is different than other previous technologies because it conducts both afferent and efferent signals, creating bidirectional signals. Currently, research has been successful on paraplegic people with just efferent signals—meaning electronic signals are sent to the spinal cord to stimulate movement, but signals cannot be sent back to the brain. These developments have shown exciting results—paraplegic people can now stand up and move their toes again.
However, scientists are weary of using just efferent signals because it can only result in somewhat awkward, uncontrolled movements similar to a robot that uses wildly inappropriate amount of force. Robots only display efferent signals.
This is why the promising research from Courtine using both efferent and afferent signals is so promising! People with paralysis could soon use their own thoughts to move their body again. Courtine calls this process “neural bypass”. And he thinks the future looks bright. Even though he is realistic about his expectations by stating, ““We’re not going to see people walking in the street with brain-spine interfaces tomorrow,” he is still very clear in his goal to reverse paralysis once and for all.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
Placing a computer chip in your brain may seem completely futuristic and bizarre, but there is already a growing body of evidence and research in brain implants to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Additionally, both Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg showing interest in the future of brain-tech, it may be a not-too-distant possibility that we will be able to purchase and install brain-technology interfaces.
But for people struggling with paralysis from both stroke and spinal cord related accidents, this breakthrough is riveting. Antonio Regalado of MIT’s Technology Review has claimed he believes this technology will be widely available in 10 to 15 years. With more and more research and funding, that timeline appears to be realistic.
Because the stakes are so high for this technology, thousands of people are willing to enter test trials in order to make progress towards reversing paralysis once and for all. As John Donoghue, an American that made many of the early developments within brain implant research, says, “Ask someone if they would like to move their own arm,” he says. “People would prefer to be restored to their everyday self. They want to be reanimated.”
If this research is effective at treating paralysis, there are many other diseases and conditions in which it could bring hope. So-called neural prosthetics could be used to reverse blindness with a chip placed in the eye or it could even be uses to reverse memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The promise and hope surrounding this new scientific breakthrough are endless. We are excited to see what happens next!