Scientists have found a way to help people with brain or spinal-cord injuries to move again.
The development briefly restored fine motor movements to Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old quadriplegic paralysed from the shoulders down, allowing him to hold a cup and perform other everyday tasks using his hand, wrist and fingers.
The technique involved bypassing the damaged spinal cord by implanting an electronic chip into the part of his brain that controls movement.
When Burkhart thought about moving his hand, the chip transmitted electrical signals to a cuff with electrodes worn around his lower arm. The electrodes then stimulated the muscles that moved his hand.
The findings, published in the journal Nature, suggest that the reorganization the brain undergoes following spinal-cord injuries may be less than previously assumed.
“It gives us a lot of hope that there are perhaps not as many neural changes in the brain as we might have imagined after an injury like this, and we can bypass damaged areas of the spinal cord to regain movement,” said lead researcher Chad Bouton.
Seeing movement in the muscles of his hand and wrist was, Burkhart said, “just like a flicker of hope. This is something that is working.”
To reach the point of being able to move his hand, Burkhart attended three session a week for 15 months. He added that with enough work and attention this development could significantly improve his quality of life, and that of others with similar injuries.
Bouton notes that there is still much work to be done, and that it could take up to a decade before developments like this will benefit people in their day-to-day lives. His view is echoed by Dr Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer of brain-machine interfaces for people with brain and spinal-cord injuries, who agrees that improvements will be needed before the method can be implemented on a large scale.
Nicolelis added that the researchers needed to show that this method would promote the regeneration of lost feeling in patients. "Most studies show that sensory perception and motor recovery go together," he explained.
Meanwhile, another goal for the researchers would be to miniaturize the equipment, to make it more practical for patients to use outside the lab environment.