Spinal cord injury can lead to severe paralysis for which there is currently no available treatment options. Since the electric signals arising in the brain can’t reach the muscles they’re meant to activate, people with paraplegia sadly remain tethered to automatic wheelchairs and cared for by others. Yet, hope is in the air as researchers in Europe are about to conduct a trial of a new technology on two people who have an incomplete spinal cord injury to see whether the same that worked for rats will help humans.
The team has developed special flexible microelectrodes to be implanted inside the spinal canal to artificially stimulate the nerves that are responsible for muscle motion. Similar technology was used to help rehabilitate rats with incomplete spinal cord injuries, leading to the animals’ ability to walk, run, and climb stairs. The researchers believe that the same techniques can be used to control Parkinson’s and other movement disorders that arise from the brain.
“We hope that we will be able to transfer the results of our animal testing to people. Of course, people who have suffered injuries to their spinal cord will still be limited when it comes to sport or walking long distances. The first priority is to give them a certain level of independence so that they can move around their apartment and look after themselves, for instance, or walk for short distances without requiring assistance,” says [Dr. Peter Detemple, head of department at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology’s Mainz branch (IMM) and NEUWalk project coordinator].
Patients with Parkinson’s disease could also benefit from the neural prostheses. The most well-known symptoms of the disease are trembling, extreme muscle tremors and a short, stooped gait that has a profound effect on patients’ mobility. Until now this neurodegenerative disorder has mostly been treated with dopamine agonists – drugs that chemically imitate the effects of dopamine but that often lead to severe side effects when taken over a longer period of time. Once the disease has reached an advanced stage, doctors often turn to deep brain stimulation. This involves a complex operation to implant electrodes in specific parts of the brain so that the nerve cells in the region can be stimulated or suppressed as required. In the NEUWalk project, researchers are working on electric spinal cord simulation – an altogether less dangerous intervention that should however ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease just as effectively. “Initial animal testing has yielded some very promising results,” says Detemple.
The researchers from Mainz will be at the Sensor + Test 2014 measurement fair in Nürnberg to showcase their neural prostheses. These include implantable microelectrode sensors controlled by microprocessors as well as rigid multi-channel sensors that can be used to record electrophysiological signals and to stimulate neural structures.
Press release: Hope for paraplegic patients…