Scientists recently succeeded in stimulating paralyzed muscles through an artificial connection. In time the breakthrough by scientists at the University of Washington (UW) could benefit patients handicapped by stroke, spinal cord injury and similar catastrophic events. Rewiring the brain represents an ergonomic approach to helping severely paralyzed individuals cope with their diability; allowing them, for example, to turn dials, press buttons or hold a coffee cup.
The researchers at the university’s Washington National Primate Research Center believe a decade more of research will be needed before the technology for the direct stimulation of muscles from brain cells will be ready for patients.
The stroke patients would be helped by using stimulation from undamaged brain areas to restore function lost from damage in other areas of the brain. Scientists would like to discover how to re-route brain signals to bypass damaged nerves to treat spinal cord injuries. A spinal cord injury impairs nerve pathways, but spares muscles and brain tissue.
The study was published in the journal Nature in October.
Previous experiments have activated paralyzed muscles through pre-determined electrical stimulation, or tapped brain activity to operate robotic arms or computer controls. In this study muscles were directly stimulated using the activity of neurons in the part of the brain that normally controls limb movement, the motor cortex.
The UW study was proof of concept: it showed that the idea could work, according to Dr. Eberhard Fetz in the university’s press release about the breakthrough. A professor of physiology and biophysics and the university and a researcher at the primate center, he said direct stimulation is an exciting concept because it avoids the complex process of decoding neural signals to control a computer or robotic device. Direct stimulation of muscles may allow individuals to have more natural control of movement through their own volition.
By Jennifer Anderson
Source: University of Washington