A paraplegic man has been able to walk again using the power of his brain alone. The patient, who had been paralyzed for five years following a spinal cord injury, is the first with such injuries ever to walk without the need for prosthetic limbs or walking aids. Researchers believe that this is a vital first step in demonstrating that direct brain control can reverse the effects of complete paralysis and restore function into a person’s limbs.
Using an electroencephalogram (EEG)—a non-invasive test which detects electrical activity in the brain—researchers at the University of California, Irvine were able to monitor signals as they passed to electrodes placed on the patient’s knees. For 19 weeks, he underwent training sessions while suspended 5cm above the ground in order to enable free motion of the legs, before walking a 3.66m course on terra firma.
“Even after years of paralysis the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking,” explained Dr. An Do, one of the study’s lead researchers. “We showed that you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury. This noninvasive system for leg muscle stimulation is a promising method and is an advance of our current brain-controlled systems that use virtual reality or a robotic exoskeleton.”
In reintroducing the concept of walking to the brain, virtual reality mental training was employed, whereby the patient was able to control the movements of an avatar. Physical training was also required in order to strengthen and recondition his leg muscles.
While the field of prosthetics is advancing at a rapid rate, the news that the hundreds of thousands of paraplegics in the U.S might be able to regain spinal cord function is a life-changing prospect. Though the procedure has only been carried out on one patient and is still under review, the proof-of-concept study could affect paralyzed people the world over, and cut down on numerous diseases caused by excessive wheelchair reliance such as pressure ulcers and heart disease.
The study team are now examining the prospect of creating brain implants to mirror the effects of their work as a means of removing the need for a patient to wear an EEG cap and its accompanying equipment.
“Once we’ve confirmed the usability of this noninvasive system, we can look into invasive means, such as brain implants,” said senior lead researcher Dr. Zoran Nenadic. “We hope that an implant could achieve an even greater level of prosthesis control because brain waves are recorded with higher quality. In addition, such an implant could deliver sensation back to the brain, enabling the user to feel their legs.”