Rhesus monkeys who had suffered a severe injury in the spinal cord were paralyzed in one leg until researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology gave them the chance to walk again. They created a wireless system and an implant that enabled the monkey’s brains to send electrical signals to the paralyzed leg, and the primates were back on their feet within six days. The study was published in the journal Nature.
The scientists said human trials could be conducted within a decade. Paralysis implicates that the flow of electrical signals from the brain cannot reach the rest of the body as a result of spinal cord damage. The injury rarely heals but researchers in Switzerland had come up with a link that had not been addressed before and implanted a chip into the part of the primates’ brain that controls movement so the nerves in charge of leg motion could be activated.
Neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch explained that the spinal cord serves as a bridge between brain commands and the legs’ response, as reported by National Public Radio. When this bridge suffers from an injury and is partially cut, the communication is interrupted. Bloch works at the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland.
The researchers collected movement commands from healthy monkeys as they walked around and these commands were stored in a nearby computer, which was used to send them to the chip implanted in the brains of the paralyzed monkeys. Bloch said it was the first time ever that decoding the brain was linked to the stimulation of the spinal cord.
The process occurs in real time. The scientists saw the leg moving in a few seconds, and the monkeys were able to walk within six days. Researcher Andrew Jackson noted it would take some time to achieve similar results in humans given that we are bipedal and our way to walk is very different from primates’. He added that a more sophisticated procedure was required to help paralyzed people walk again particularly because it would be more challenging to restore the movement on both of their legs. Moreover, elements such as balance, steering, and obstacle avoidance must be addressed in future experiments because they are heavily required for complete locomotion.
Technological progress is going in the right direction
Dr. Mark Bacon, head of research at the charity Spinal Research, described the Swiss work as “impressive,” according to a report by the BBC.
“Paralysed patients want to be able to regain real control, that is voluntary control of lost functions, like walking, and the use of implantable devices may be one way of achieving this,” Dr. Bacon said, as quoted by BBC News.
He said the study was an indication of technological progress being made in the right direction. Brainwaves have also been used to send commands to robotic arms, and a paralyzed man has been able to play a guitar-based computer game through an implant. Even more impressive was a 2014 experiment published in journal Brain in which four paralyzed people were able to stand again.