“Bionic Spine” Helps Paralyzed Walk Again

· June 18, 2016
By implanting a small device in the brain, patients with paralysis will be able to move again by making use of subconscious thought.

In recent decades, technology and medicine have advanced to the point that treatments and solutions are being developed for pathologies once thought incurable.

Thanks to the significant progress science has made, many sick people have been able to improve their quality of life and life expectancy.

Despite once being thought impossible to cure, these findings have given hope and treatments are now much more effective than they were in the past.

A recent example involves a group of Australian researchers who created a tiny device, just over an inch long, which could help those with paralysis or a prosthetic limb to walk again.

It’s been referred to as a “bionic spine” and is implanted in a blood vessel on the side of the brain to restore mobility based on subconscious thought in paraplegic patients.

A promising technology


The researchers who created this interesting device belonged to the Royal Melbourne Hospital, the University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.

The idea behind the device is to find a different way to link thought with the body’s movements, instead of using the one that’s been damaged.

This means that a person with one of these devices implanted in their brain could make movements with their subconscious thoughts. This means that they won’t need to make the conscious effort to complete the action. It allows them to move about as they wish, just like anyone else.

The bionic spine is implanted by making a small incision in the neck to insert a catheter with the device inside.

Once in the blood vessel, the device is transported to the brain’s motor cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for generating the nerve impulses that control voluntary muscle movements.

After the catheter is removed, the electrodes on the bionic spine adhere to the walls of a vein and begin sending signals directly to the motor cortex.

These signals are transmitted to another device implanted in the patient’s shoulder, and finally to the bionic prosthesis, which utilizes Bluetooth technology.

This is not something that a person will be able to accomplish right away, but researchers assure that with training and deliberate thought, little by little the patient will slowly be able to control their movement subconsciously.

Tried for the first time in humans

Until now, the device had only been tried in sheep, but human trials are set to begin in 2017.

The three patients for the trial will be chosen the Austin Health Spinal Cord Unit, and the surgery will be performed at the Melbourne Royal Hospital in Victoria, Australia.

For the initial phases, patients with paralysis of the lower extremities will be chosen and their response to the treatment will be analyzed.

According to statements from Terry O’Brien, head of the hospital’s neurological department, this development is the “holy grail” of research in bionic technology.

Meanwhile, Dr. Nicholas Opie, chief researcher and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, said that it is a simple, although extensive, procedure.

After surgery, the complicated part will be learning to use thought to move the bionic limbs naturally using the subconscious.

This solution does not repair the damaged pathways in the brain. Instead, it uses alternative routes to carry signals to the corresponding extremity.

“What they’re doing is implanting a transmitter to carry the signals necessary to move the limb by bypassing the damaged area,” explains the doctor.

Although this is not the first piece of technology designed to improve mobility in patients with paralysis, the team behind its development assures that it is the biggest breakthrough, in both results and scope.

If the responses are positive in the human trials, it’s expected that the treatment will also be used in patients with epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Parkinson’s disease.

This technology was described in Nature Biotechnology.