A Ray Of Hope For The Paralysed
As each day passes by, scientists are making noteworthy progress in restoring the freedom of movement that have been taken away by a spinal cord injury (SCI), using brain implants.
- Over 500,000 persons around the world suffer a spinal cord injury each year.
- Studies report that more than 67% of those affected by a spinal cord injury are males, with females recording less than 33%.
- Females are more at risk of having a spinal cord injury during their adolescence — within the ages of 15 to 19, and at an older age — above 60 years of age. While males are more at risk at young adulthood— during the ages of 20 to 29, and at an older age — well above 70.
- Most spinal cord injuries are avoidable and are as a result vehicular accidents, violence, falls and sport related.
- When compared with the general population, those with a spinal cord injury are four times more likely to die prematurely than those without one, especially within the first year after the injury. Moreover, the mortality rate of sufferers in developing countries are far worse.
- When a spinal cord injury is severe it affects the body systems that controls the regulation of blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, bladder and bowel movement.
- People with a spinal cord injury experience higher rates of unemployment (60%) and suicidal attempts, with a very low rate of school enrolment.
Imagine you can’t move your arms for a full day, not even to scratch your nose, tousle a child’s hair or touch the love of your life. Now that would give you an idea of how devastating a spinal cord injury (SCI) can be.
The Ray of Hope
In recent times, with the help of brain implant wired to a machine, more test subjects — lab animals, and quite a very few persons have been able to use their thoughts to control robotic arms, legs or computer cursors. However, researchers are now taking this to a whole new level by reversing paralysis itself. In order for people to be able to use their thoughts to move their limbs again, a wireless connection between the brain-reading technology with electrical stimulators on the body has been made. Grégoire Courtine calls this a “neural bypass.”
Grégoire Courtine, a French neuroscientist, wanted to prove that he could get a paralysed monkey to walk again. To achieve this aim, Courtine and his colleagues sliced halfway through a macaque monkey's spinal cord with a blade. After that, below the injury they sutured a pad of flexible electrodes around the monkey's spinal cord and then installed a recording device beneath its skull, touching its motor cortex. Using a wireless connection, they connected both electronic devices.
As a result, the electronic device placed beneath the skull of the monkey read the animal’s intention to move and immediately transmitted these intentions in the form of bursts of electrical stimulation to its spine. Thereafter, the monkey’s right leg began to wobble forward.
“The monkey was thinking, and then boom, it was walking.” - Grégoire Courtine, a professor with Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
A middle aged man in Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, whose both arms and both legs were affected by paralysis and could only move his head and shoulder agreed to let doctors install two recording implants in his brain, which is similar to the ones Professor Courtine used in the monkeys. This device is smaller than a postage stamp, made of silicon and threaded with a hundred hair-size metal probes that receive commands sent by neurons.
More than sixteen fine electrodes was slid into the muscles of the man’s arm and hand by Robert Kirsch and Bolu Ajiboye Case team, to complete the bypass. The man can be seen wobbling his arm with the help of a spring loaded arm rest, and opening and closing his hand at will in videos of the experiment. He even raised a cup with a straw to his lips in the video. This actions were absolutely impossible before the brain-spine chip was placed in him.
Besides treating paralysis, scientists hope to broaden the use of implanted electronics to restore various senses and abilities. Such as using neural prosthetics to restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease, and to reverse blindness with chips installed in the eye.
To a those new to scientific discoveries these may seem impossible but actually it isn't, and the scientist know it could work. For instance, over 260,000 cases of deafness have been treated, with several cases of children who were born deaf being able to hear their mothers for the first time. These cochlear cases of implants are done by using a microphone to send signals to the auditory nerve directly, moving through the non-working parts of the inner ear.
However, it is more difficult to use neural prosthetics to treat people with paralysis. In 1998, a patient once used a brain device to maneuver a computer cursor across the screen. But this and many other exceptional brain-control activities haven’t had any extensive practical use.
"The technology remains too radical and too complex to get out of the lab. Twenty years of work and nothing in the clinic!
We keep pushing the limits, but it is an important question if this entire field will ever have a product.” - Professor Courtine
Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire, funded a $100,000,000 center in Geneva, dedicated to solve technical neurotechnology conundrum like the spinal cord bypass, this is where Professor Courtine's lab sits. Where flexible rubbery electrodes are developed from gold wires, and they are made to stretch like the human body.
An American named John Donoghue is the head of the centre. He led the early development of brain implants in the United States and moved to Geneva over 2 years ago. In a bid to create a commercially viable system, he is recruiting skilled clinicians, technologist and neuroscientist. Currently, Donoghue's is working on an ultra-compact wireless chip that can receive data from the brain at super amazing speed, they call it a "neurocomm."
“A radio inside your head, the most sophisticated brain communicator in the world." - John Donoghue
The prototypes are as small as a matchbox and are made of biocompatible titanium coupled with a sapphire window. Professor Courtine used a larger version in his experiments.
These complex devices, though slow in progress are a much viable option for those to whom it seemed like all hope have been lost. In the next decade, give or take a year or two, this neural bypass chips would be more affordable and common in our society.