New Gadget Could Help Paralysis Victims

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer

A team of researchers from the University of Washington say they have created a device that can re-route motor cortex control signals from the brain to paralyzed limbs and enable the muscles to move.

Lead researcher Dr. Chet Moritz and his colleagues developed a gadget called a brain-machine interface that can circumvent the impaired nerve pathways of paralysis victims and enable the brain to “speak” directly to the muscles.

The gadget, which is the size of a mobile phone and runs on AA batteries, interprets brain signals and converts them into electrical impulses that can then stimulate muscle to contract. This kind of direct stimulation of muscles may allow individuals to have more natural control of movement through their own volition.

The research was conducted on monkeys whose wrist nerves were temporarily paralyzed with a local anesthetic. Despite the nerve block, the monkeys were able to control the contraction strength of their wrist muscles to match a set of targets on a computer screen. Controlling the degree of muscle contraction is what allows us to pick up an egg without breaking the shell or to grab tightly to a handrail to avoid a fall.

“Nearly every motor cortex neuron we tested in the brain could be used to control the stimulation of the wrist muscles,” said Dr. Chet Moritz, UW senior fellow in physiology and biophysics and lead author on the study, which also included UW researcher Steve Perlmutter.

“This could be scaled to include more muscles or stimulate sites in the spinal cord that could activate muscles in a coordinated action,” Moritz said. “Similar techniques could be applied to stimulate the lower limb muscles during walking.”

Because of this discovery, it is hoped that someday researchers may also be able to help stroke patients by using stimulation from undamaged brain areas to restore function lost from damage in other areas of the brain.

Researchers believe a decade more of research will be necessary before direct stimulation of muscles from brain cells can be applied in patients.

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