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A spinal cord injury can impact your entire life – from walking to using the bathroom. Scientists have been trying to find ways to restore function to paralyzed patients for decades. Now a test involving monkeys gives hope for a wireless, wearable computer solution in the future.
When a person suffers a spinal cord injury in an auto accident or fall, it can cut off use of any part of the body below the injury. That means that many spinal cord injuries result in partial or even total paralysis in a patient’s legs. The nerve cells that make up the spinal cord don’t heal the same way muscles or bones can. When the spinal cord is injured the resulting disability can last a lifetime.
That’s why a new study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is promising, even if it won’t lead to any human applications for another decade. Gregoire Courtine, a specialist in spinal cord repair, together with David Borton of Brown University, has created a wireless, wearable computer system that allows monkeys’ nervous systems to bypass the injured part of the spine.
The scientists implanted a computer chip in paralyzed monkeys’ brains. This chip sends wireless signals through a computer to electrodes implanted in the lower back. When the monkey thinks about walking, the the electrodes fire, controlling the muscles involved in walking.
Andrew Jackson, at Newcastle University, has done similar work on upper body paralysis in humans. His work involves restoring the ability to reach and grab items. But because all the information has to be routed through a computer, spinal injury patients have not been able to be mobile while using it.
Dr. Courtine says he hopes that humans will be able to use his system “in the next 10 years” for rehabilitation and to “improve recovery and quality of life.” But he told the New York Times this isn’t going to be science fiction fix:
“‘People are not going to walk in the streets with a brain-spine interface,’ in the foreseeable future.”
Even transferring the existing computer system to humans will take a lot of work. The Chicago Tribune explains:
“The signals that come from the human brain to enable us to walk may be more complicated than those in monkeys. The research so far helps monkeys, who walk on all fours. But walking on two legs as humans do is trickier, requiring a complex balancing act. . . . There’s going to be a lot more research, and better equipment.”
Scientists will also need to develop ways to allow paralyzed patients to turn and maneuver before it will be ready for the road. Still, it is a powerful step toward rehabilitating a devastating injury.
David Christensen is an auto accident at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He helps victims of spinal cord injuries get coverage for their rehabilitation. If you have been in an auto accident, contact Christensen Law for a free consultation.