A pioneering electrical spinal implant being developed at the University of Alberta could soon be getting patients with life-changing injuries up and walking again. So far, the device has proven to be effective in trials on macaque monkeys, but the researchers are hopeful that it will be available for use on human patients in as little as a decade.
“We think that intraspinal stimulation itself will get people to start walking longer and longer, and maybe even faster,” said lead researcher Dr Vivian Mushahwar, of the University of Alberta’s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute. “That in itself becomes their therapy. There’s been an explosion of knowledge in neuroscience over the last 20 years. We’re at the edge of merging the human and the machine.”
The device features hair-like electrical wires that plunge deep into the spinal grey matter, sending electrical signals to trigger the networks that already know how to do the hard work.
To work alongside the implant, the team created a map to identify which parts of the spinal cord trigger the hip, knees, ankles and toes, and the areas that put movements together.
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People tend to think the brain does all the thinking, but the spinal cord has built-in intelligence, Mushahwar says. A complex chain of motor and sensory networks regulate everything from breathing to bowels, while the brain stem’s contribution is basically “go!” and “faster!” Your spinal cord isn’t just moving muscles, it’s giving you your natural gait.
Being able to control standing and walking would improve bone health, improve bowel and bladder function, and reduce pressure ulcers, the researchers say. For those with less severe spinal injuries, an implant could be therapeutic, removing the need for months of gruelling physical therapy regimes that have limited success, they add.
The team say they are now going to focus on refining the hardware further by miniaturising an implantable stimulator and getting approval from Health Canada and the FDA for human trials. The first generation of the implants will require a patient to control walking and movement through physical means, but longer term, the implants could potentially include a direct connection to the brain, they say.
“Imagine the future,” Dr Mushahwar said. “A person just thinks and commands are transmitted to the spinal cord. People stand up and walk. This is the dream.”