Researchers from the National Institute of Natural Science have potentially found a way to give spinal cord injury patients the ability to walk again. They have developed a system that uses a computer interface and magnets to sense movements in users' arms to move the legs.
The research team was able to manipulate an specific area of the spinal cord to create a connection to the locomotion center in the base of the spinal cord. However, they note that the technology is a long way off from being used clinically.
On the other hand, this development means it might soon be possible for people who have suffered spinal cord injuries to move their limbs again, even though their brain is no longer able to communicate with that specific part of the spinal cord.
The neural networks in the spinal cord are able to continue producing rhythmic movements even when not connected to the brain. Through this, researchers were able to stimulate leg movements with the patient moving the arm. The muscle activity from the arm movement replaces the brain activity, and a computer interface gives the patient the ability to control the movements through non-invasive magnets.
“We hope that this technology would compensate for the interrupted pathways’ function by sending an intentionally encoded command to the preserved spinal locomotor center and regain volitionally-controlled walking in indviduals with paraplegia," said Yukio Nishimura, who worked on the project. “However, the major challenge that this technology does not help them to dodge obstacles and to maintain posture. We are carefully working toward clinical application in near future.”
So far, the system has only been tested on people who have the ability to walk. They were asked to relax their legs and control their movements using the system.
See how the brain-controlled computer system works in the video below.