A major new study into the use of brain training in paraplegic rehabilitation has produced incredible results, with patients regaining partial movement and feeling after long-term trials.
The Walk Again Project is something you might be hearing more about in the future. A non-profit international research consortium, its latest study into brain-machine interfaces (BMI), and the success they have in rehabilitating paraplegics, could be huge.
Two years after its global reveal at the World Cup in Brazil, patients who trialled the new procedure showed signs of partial recovery in nerves that had been injured more than a decade before.
Kick-start a movement
Back in 2014, a young Brazilian man, paralysed from his chest down, delivered the opening kick-off of the World Cup by using a BMI that let him control the movements of a lower-limb robotic exoskeleton.
The exoskeleton gave feedback through its feet, with the whole operation a digital success. Surprising the team behind the project, though, is the effect the study has had on patients’ actual bodies.
The study – published in Scientific Reports – saw the training of eight paraplegic patients over a period of one year through BMI: seven had what’s called ‘complete injury’ of their spines.
Wearing a sensor-laden cap on their scalp positioned directly over specific, responsive parts of the brain, the patients used virtual reality headsets to train. They also manipulated a tailored, motorised exoskeleton, again through purely neurological controls.
Continual training with the tailored brain-controlled system led to the group of patients regaining the ability to voluntarily move their leg muscles and to feel touch and pain in their paralysed limbs.
How far can this go?
This was despite being originally diagnosed as having a clinically complete spinal cord injury, in some cases more than a decade earlier.
More remarkable still is the timeline. The study dates from trials between January and December of 2014. The researchers – led by Miguel Nicolelis, director of the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering and principal investigator of the WAP – don’t know just how much more success can be achieved as the patients have continued to improve ever since.
A follow-up paper relating to 2015 and into this year is due out, too.
However, they believe that the present discovery should change rehabilitation practices in paraplegic patients in the future by upgrading the status of brain-machine interfaces, from a simple assistive technology to a potential new therapy for spinal cord injury rehabilitation.
Surprising us all
“When [we] created the current brain-machine interface paradigm in the late 1990s, the expectation was that, at the most, such an interface would allow people to regain mobility by artificial means,” said Nicolelis, “using prosthetic limbs or prosthetic exoskeletons controlled directly by their brains.
“We never predicted that by having patients interacting with these devices over a long period we might induce significant neurological recovery, including sensory, motor, and visceral improvements, all body functions lost due to a devastating spinal cord injury, such as the case of our eight patients.”
Saying that current diagnoses of severe spinal injuries put patients in wheelchairs for good, Nicolelis wants to change that.
Looking to bring this process to spinal cord centres globally, he said: “We believe that our results with this long-term, sustained BMI training can be not only critical itself in triggering recovery in our patients, but it can also serve as an important motivator for spinal cord patients worldwide.”
Main image of a child in a wheelchair via Shutterstock