Brain and Body

This New Brain Implant Could Bring Paralyzed Limbs Back to Life

January 7, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Two researchers hold up a fine mesh
Photo credit: ustin Knight Photography/MIT/Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering

It would bridge the brain’s lost connections.

The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) at the University of Washington was just granted a cool $16 million from the National Science Foundation. Why? For an utterly brilliant research plan to create a brain implant that could potentially bring paralyzed limbs back to life by promoting brain plasticity.

"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,” Rajesh Rao, director of CSNE, said in a press release, “but unfortunately the injury prevented that intention from being conveyed to the spinal cord.”

The “bidirectional brain-computer interfaces” being developed at CSNE would be able to record and decode the electrical signals that a formed when a person has an intention to do something, like open a door or walk across the room. The mini brain implants would be designed to detect the brain’s intention to do something, and then transfer that intention in an encoded wireless signal to another part of the nervous system.

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"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," says Rao.

The funding will be spread out over four years, and the researchers say they aim to have proof-of-concept demonstrations in humans within the next five years. Approved devices will follow, if all goes according to plan.

"There's a huge unmet need, especially with an ageing 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," says Rao.

The CSNE researchers aren’t the first to think of using electrical brain implants to treat certain neurological diseases. In fact, brain implants are becoming more common to treat Parkinson’s disease, but the constant shocks of electrical pulses can lead to unwanted side effects, like involuntary movements. Plus, the device’s batteries can drain quickly.

To work around these problems, the CSNE scientists want to develop the next generation of “closed loop” implants, which would only apply the targeted electrical stimulation when it was needed. Then patients wouldn’t have to worry about a constant stream of electrical pulses even when they were trying to rest.

Interestingly, the scientists intend to use some of the funding to research the ethics of these brain implants. Obviously, something that has the ability to control activity in the brain could have the potential to fundamentally change a person’s brain — maybe even a person’s identity. If the technology is approved, professionals must be prepared for any possible psychological effects that could accompany the implants.

As Rao said it himself in an interview with the Seattle Times, this implantable brain device “could be a game changer.”

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