The complex circuitry connecting the brain to important muscles in the body may hold the key to helping paralyzed patients get up and walk.
Like, getting up and walking almost immediately.
An international team of scientists, writing up their findings in the journal Nature, say implanting electrodes in a portion of the spine that hasn't been injured can reopen the pathway from the brain to leg muscles.
They conducted experiments using two primates who had temporarily become paralyzed in one leg. After implanting the electrodes, the scientists say the monkeys could get up and start walking. They say such a remedy could be available for human use within a decade.
According to the Mayo Clinic Staff, a spinal cord injury often causes permanent changes to the body below the injury, creating a life-changing situation. Yet the Mayo doctors acknowledge that many researchers have long been optimistic that doctors would someday find a way to repair these injuries.
Severity can vary
People suffer spinal cord injuries in many ways. A number of these injuries have occurred during athletic competition. Others are the result of accidents. The severity can vary, based on the area of the spin that is injured.
“Most injuries to the spinal cord don't completely sever it,” the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains on one of its websites. “Instead, an injury is more likely to cause fractures and compression of the vertebrae, which then crush and destroy axons -- extensions of nerve cells that carry signals up and down the spinal cord between the brain and the rest of the body. An injury to the spinal cord can damage a few, many, or almost all of these axons.”
NIH points out that some patients recover from spinal injuries, but others don't.
In the experiments on monkeys, the researchers say they were encouraged because the primates were able to get up and walk immediately after the implant, without having to go through any kind of physical retraining.
Up and around in six days
“As early as six days post-injury and without prior training of the monkeys, the brain–spine interface restored weight-bearing locomotion of the paralyzed leg on a treadmill and overground,” the authors write. “The implantable components integrated in the brain–spine interface have all been approved for investigational applications in similar human research, suggesting a practical translational pathway for proof-of-concept studies in people with spinal cord injury.”
There are actually two implantable devices that make the system work. One is implanted in the brain, the other in the spine. The devices then communicate wirelessly.
In addition to helping paralyzed people walk again, the scientists say they may be able to use their discovery to regrow damaged circuits. But they concede the electrodes carry some limitations that require additional research.