Technology is now helping people who have been paralysed for years, and the results are amazing.
Eight people with spinal cord injuries have regained some feeling in their legs after training with brain-controlled robotics, in a result nobody, not even the lead neuroscientist, expected.
The “surprising” clinical results from the Walk Again Project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, show patients have some sensations and muscle control in their legs, and researchers believe it could offer hope to people who have suffered spinal cord injuries, strokes and other conditions where they will need to regain strength, mobility and independence.
Scientists, led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, of Duke University in North Carolina, US, used a virtual reality system which worked with the patients’ own brain activity to simulate control of their legs during the long-term training programme.
The first hopeful signs were spotted in some patients after seven months but the sensations and muscle control reported by four patients were so strong after a year that their doctors upgraded their diagnoses from complete to partial paralysis.
Most patients said they had better bladder control and bowel function which meant they could cut back on much-need laxatives and catheters.
The eight patients spent at least two hours a week using devices controlled through their brain signals and were taught how to operate their own avatar, or digital likeness, in a virtual reality environment.
They wore fitted caps lined with 11 non-invasive electrodes to record their brain activity. The patients were asked to imagine walking in the virtual world and it appears that “the training reinserted the representation of lower limbs into the patients’ brains”, according to Nicolelis.
A 32-year-old woman, who had been paralysed for 13 years, was unable to stand using brace. Dramatic changes from these early improvements saw her being able to walk using a walker, braces and her therapist’s help. At 13 months the patient, who has not been named, was able to move her legs voluntarily while her body weight was supported in a harness.
Nicolelis said: “One previous study has shown that a large percentage of patients who are diagnosed as having complete paraplegia may still have some spinal nerves left intact.”
“These nerves may go quiet for many years because there is no signal from the cortex to the muscles.
“Over time, training with the brain-machine interface could have rekindled these nerves.
“It may be a small number of fibres that remain, but this may be enough to convey signals from the motor cortical area of the brain to the spinal cord.”
The progress of the patients, who have now had training for more than two years, will continue to be tracked by the researchers.