A new spinal implant may be the answer to helping cure paralysis once and for all.
Scientists have discovered a way to electrically stimulate the lower lumbosacral spinal cord, which is connected to nerve fibers that control motor functions in humans’ lower bodies. Known as epidural stimulation, the treatment was released in a paper for the journal Brain, and has already been tested on four paralyzed men, all of whom can now voluntarily move their hips, legs, ankles, and toes.
In an interview on New Scientist, lead author Claudia Angeli, assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, said that these paralyzed men had previously been diagnosed as unlikely to ever walk again. The University worked along side the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation to create and test the implant.
Angeli said, “There’s not been anything like this, and no hope previously for the most severely injured patients, so this is a very important step forward for them.”
The spinal implant relies heavily on neuroscience, and uses 16 different electrodes and algorithms that can be adjusted by the individual with the implant. “By modulating the voltage for each individual and for each task, algorithms that optimise delivery of electrical activity for specific movements can be worked out and applied at will by the patients,” said Angeli.
These electrodes and algorithms help restore the electrical activity that in healthy humans, keeps the spinal cord alert and ready to communicate with the brain. This is the reason most people with paralysis can’t control or move their lower bodies, because this electrical activity ceases to function properly without active use.
The success of this implant proves that even though the spinal cord may be injured, it’s still able to communicate with the brain if given the right stimulation.
Check out this video of one of the spinal implant patients who, along with some physical therapy, is able to voluntarily control the movement of his legs again, even when they’re weighed down:
Now that the spinal implant has proven to work on reviving the lower-body functions of the four men (including their excretory and sexual functions), Angeli plans to improve the device so that it will have more electrodes that could lead to “better coordination.” Right now, the spinal implant is limited in that it can only help movement in one side of the body at a time. Angeli hopes to change this and eventually reach the point where the implant helps paralyzed patients to walk again.