Treating people who’ve had extensive damage to the spinal cord and are paralyzed is one of the tougher goals in medicine. It is a worthy area to focus emerging medical breakthroughs. Through innovative drugs and the use of new technology, we are steadily chipping away at some possible solutions.
Which brings us to a new discovery out of Brazil. Researchers have designed a brain-machine interface that can help paraplegic patients regain some sensation and even motor function.
While the cause of the regained sensation, retraining of damaged spinal tissue, is not new, this method of achieving it is. Through the Walk Again project, the scientists were able to use VR goggles and tactile feedback on the arms to help patients visualize moving their muscles.
The technology allowed for the creation of brain signals that were then used to move a large robotic apparatus. These visualizations have led to the patients regaining feeling and even movement.
The study, published in Scientific Reports, notes varied but promising levels of recovery among the patients. While none were able to recover enough to support themselves in their legs, they were able to make partial recovery.
Aside from just movement, recovery included an increase in bowel control, regained bladder functions, erections in men, and even one woman who delivered a baby naturally. For the first time, this mother was able to feel her child. She even felt the contractions during the birth. These amount to recovery which is able to uplift quality of life.
For patients who have been paralyzed for up to 13 years, this is no small feat. “For the first time in many years they were able to voluntarily control their muscles,” says project lead Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, in an interview with NPR. “They could move their legs or contract muscles under voluntary control.”
Other scientist note that similar results have been achieved using other methods, and only time, and research, will tell if this one is the best among the rest.