When someone suffers an injury or illness that results in paralysis, the loss is devastating. Whether partial or full, when part of the body doesn’t work due to a spinal cord injury, patients have a tough time rehabbing after the injury and learning to live with limbs that do not function properly.
Neuroscientists are continually researching ways to regenerate nerves or develop technology to help patients regain as much function as possible. An experimental device that’s getting a lot of attention has come out of Battelle Inc., an applied-science non-profit in Columbus, Ohio. The company has been involved in all kinds of technological and scientific devices and research, but their implant, called NeuroLife, is something that could revolutionize care for spinal cord injury patients.
Neural prosthetic devices are meant to harness the peripheral nervous system and the brain to control movement and use of artificial limbs. In healthy individuals, there is a link between the brain and the rest of the body, which allows movement. When this link is severed, devices like NeuroLife can create an artificial link, or what is referred to as a “neural bypass.” But how can this be? Without the connection, where do signals from the brain go?
NeuroLife uses a tiny chip that is implanted in the primary motor cortex of the brain. This is movement central and where the signals for motor functions originate. Once the chip is in place, the patient thinks deliberately about the movement they want to make, for instance grasping a spoon, or holding a cup. Machine learning algorithms then decode the brain activity generated by those thoughts and send signals to a wearable sleeve that is covered with 260 electrodes that spur the muscles to move and perform the intended action.
Decoding the brain waves that happen with a patient imagines an action and then parsing them into signals that will cause muscle movement is, quite simply, nothing short of a miracle for patients who may have given up hope of being able to accomplish the simplest of daily tasks.
The Medical Device Network reports that one patient, a 27-year old male who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, was able to successfully use the implant to achieve “continuous cortical control of six different wrist and hand motions. With continuous usage, the participant was able to use the system to complete functional tasks relevant to daily living.”
For now, the device is experimental only. The prototype is too large and unwieldy to be portable, and it takes two lab technicians an hour to set it up and get it operational. Dr. Gaurav Sharma, the lead investigator for the project, explained, “The ultimate goal of this project is to develop and mature this technology to a point where someone can actually take it home with them and use it for their activities of daily living. Ideally, the brain-computer interface will be wireless, and there will not be a cord coming out of Ian’s head. I also envision that we will be able to make our algorithms more portable and able to run on a small tablet or even your phone.”
The video below features Ian Burkhart, who was the diver injured three years ago. See how the device is helping him recover function he thought was lost forever.