Eight patients with severe spinal cord injuries were able to recover some of their neurological function with the help of a brain-controlled robotic suit. In their study published on Aug. 11 in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers revealed that the participants regained sensations below their spinal cord injury while others regained some muscle movement after 12 months of training in a lab.
The study is part of the Walk Again Project in São Paulo, Brazil. According to lead researcher from Duke University, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, the paralyzed patients used brain-machine interfaces that also include a virtual reality system. This used their brain activity to simulate full control of their legs. The patients also saw improvements in their visceral functions, tactile sensations and motor behavior below the level of their injury.
Consequently, the physicians upgraded their diagnoses to partial paralysis from complete paralysis. One patient was even able to finally move her legs voluntarily while hanging on a harness despite being completely paralyzed for the past 13 years.
“One previous study has shown that a large percentage of patients who are diagnosed as having complete paraplegia may still have some spinal nerves left intact,” Nicolelis says. “These nerves may go quiet for many years because there is no signal from the cortex to the muscles. Over time, training with the brain-machine interface could have rekindled these nerves. It may be a small number of fibers that remain, but this may be enough to convey signals from the motor cortical area of the brain to the spinal cord.”
The Walk Again Project is a collaboration of over 100 scientists from 25 countries. Further research is needed but the team plans to study patients who suffered recent spinal cord injuries. They aim to find out if this quicker treatment could also lead to better results.
The researchers also aim to develop technologies that are accessible for individuals all over the planet who do not have access to physical therapy centers that can help their condition.