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Combining EEG, Electrical Stimulation, and Physical Therapy to Bypass Spinal Cord Injury

The research noted here is a good example here of inventively combining presently available technologies to achieve a positive result. The scientists involved have demonstrated a way to work around paralysis following spinal cord injury to allow physical activity. It is interesting to consider that this result could probably have been achieved twenty or more years ago had someone put in the effort. We should all no doubt ask ourselves what else could be achieved today in medicine, and doesn't exist simply because no-one has yet tried in earnest, or assembled the right building blocks in the right way:

The ability to walk has been restored following a spinal cord injury, using one's own brain power. The preliminary proof-of-concept study shows that it is possible to use direct brain control to get a person's legs to walk again. This is the first time that a person with complete paralysis in both legs (paraplegia) due to spinal cord injury was able to walk without relying on manually controlled robotic limbs, as with previous walking aid devices. "Even after years of paralysis the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking. We showed that you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury. This noninvasive system for leg muscle stimulation is a promising method and is an advance of our current brain-controlled systems that use virtual reality or a robotic exoskeleton."

The participant, who had been paralyzed for five years, walked along a 3.66m long course using an electroencephalogram (EEG) based system. The system takes electrical signals from the participant's brain, which then travel down to electrodes placed around his knees to create movement. Mental training was initially needed to reactivate the brain's walking ability. Seated and wearing an EEG cap to read his brainwaves, the participant trained to control an avatar in a virtual reality environment. He also required physical training to recondition and strengthen his leg muscles. The participant later practiced walking while suspended 5cm above ground, so he could freely move his legs without having to support himself. On his 20th visit, he translated these skills to walk on the ground and wore a body-weight support system for aid and to prevent falls. Over the 19 week testing period, he gained more control and performed more tests per visit.

This proof-of-concept study involved a single patient so further studies are needed to establish whether these results are true for a larger population of individuals with paraplegia. "Once we've confirmed the usability of this noninvasive system, we can look into invasive means, such as brain implants. We hope that an implant could achieve an even greater level of prosthesis control because brain waves are recorded with higher quality. In addition, such an implant could deliver sensation back to the brain, enabling the user to feel their legs."

Link: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-09/bc-mwa091815.php

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