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Neural Engineering’s Image Problem

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Newswise — Jennifer French, who was paralyzed from the waist down in 1998 as a result of a snowboarding accident, has a new mission. Standing up? Walking? No–been there, done that. With the help of electronics implanted in her legs and lower torso, she can already stand up out of her wheelchair and even move around using a walker. But now she’s taken on a different sort of challenge: motivating others with neurological injuries and their caregivers to consider implanted devices. It’s a tougher sell than you might think.

Scientists and engineers are, at last, realizing one of the greatest ambitions in recent medical history: the ability to tap directly into the human nervous system to restore Motor and sensory functions in people who have lost them because of injury, illness, or stroke. But such neural engineering is underfunded, underutilized, and overshadowed by Biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries that promise a miracle cure for paralysis is just around the corner.

French, who recently formed a nonprofit organization called the Society to Increase Mobility (STIM, in Tampa, Fla., to help spread the word about neural engineering, knows the problem all too well. “There is a spinal cord injury community out there that believes that they should do nothing with their bodies until the cure is here,” she says. “The challenge is: how do you reach those clinicians and patients in an Environment that is overshadowed by the promise of a cure soon to come.”

Also holding back use of neural implants, especially for those with spinal cord injury, is an ingrained uneasiness and lack of knowledge about the devices among both patients who could be helped by them and their doctors. Designers of implants hope that the rapid adoption of similar technologies to overcome deafness and control Parkinson’s tremors will ease the introduction of their devices. In addition, making the devices smaller and less invasive should attract potential patients. Indeed, a neuromuscular stimulator not much bigger than a grain of rice is being tested by Advanced Bionics, Inc., of Sylmar, Calif.

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