Brain-machine interface helps paraplegics regain partial sensation and muscle control

Durham, NC--Courtesy of James Willamor CC BY-SA 2.0

A Duke University-led team has used brain-controlled robotics to restore partial sensation and muscle control in the lower limbs of 8 people who had been paralyzed from spinal cord injuries.

The brain-machine interface comprises a virtual reality system that uses the participants’ brain activity to simulate control of their legs. The interface allows for direct communication between patients’ brains and computers or robotic limbs, according to the statement. Nicolelis has developed systems that record signals from neurons in the brain and translate them into movement.

The 8 participants wore caps lined with electrodes to record brain activity via EEG, and controlled the movement of a digital likeness in the virtual environment, according to a statement. Almost all of the patients had been paralyzed for 5 years or more.

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The results, published Thursday in Scientific Reports, demonstrated that patients who used the brain-machine interface for a long period of time showed improvement in motor behavior, sensations and involuntary function below the spinal cord injury, said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke neuroscientist in the statement.

“Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis,” Nicolelis said.

Most of the patients had improved bladder control and bowel function, which reduced their risk of infections as they relied less on laxatives and catheters. Several of them noticed changes after 7 months of using the interface, while four patients showed so much improvement after one year that their diagnosis was changed from complete to partial paralysis.

The research is part of the Walk Again Project, a program involving scientists from 25 countries that focuses on helping people with spinal cord injuries regain strength and mobility. Nicolelis plans to publish more data on the study’s cohort as they continue their rehabilitation. Next, he plans to conduct a trial with patients who have suffered spinal cord injuries more recently, to see whether earlier treatment will yield better results.

- here's the statement

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