NSF awards $16M to researchers developing implants to reanimate paralyzed limbs

Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering researchers examine flexible neural recording fibers--Courtesy of the University of Washington

Researchers hope to be in proof-of-concept clinical trials within the next 5 years on brain implants that will create an artificial pathway between the brain and paralyzed limbs. The expectation is that this kind of technology is expected to offer a means to circumvent paralysis that is due to damage to the nervous system that cuts off signals from the brain.

The National Science Foundation has backed the research with a four-year, $16 million grant. The work is based at the University of Washington's Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) and includes academics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and San Diego State University.

"There's a huge unmet need, especially with an aging population of baby boomers, for developing the next generation of medical devices for helping people with progressive or traumatic neurological conditions such as stroke and spinal cord injury," said Rajesh Rao, CSNE director and UW professor of computer science and engineering, in a statement.

CSNE was initially founded in 2011 with an $18.5 million NSF grant. It's been focused on the development of bi-directional implantable devices that can pick up brain signals and communicate information to other parts of the nervous system.

The experimental devices record and decode electrical signals from the brain formed to initiate a limb movement. They transmit that information wirelessly, thereby circumventing damaged neural pathways.

The technology is expected to also be useful in promoting brain plasticity for targeted rehabilitation in stroke and spinal cord injury patients. That could help to enable the reconnection of the brain or spinal regions. CSNE is also working on next-gen deep brain stimulators used to treat Parkinson's disease and tremors that would monitor the brain and deliver electrical pulses only as needed.

"When Christopher Reeve sustained a spinal cord injury due to a fall from his horse, his brain circuits were still intact and able to form the intention to move, but unfortunately the injury prevented that intention from being conveyed to the spinal cord," Rao added. "Our implantable devices aim to bridge such lost connections by decoding brain signals and stimulating the appropriate part of the spinal cord to enable the person to move again."

- here is the statement