Spinal cord injuries can leave people paralyzed and without a sense of touch in much of the body. While there’s been a tremendous amount of work in the past decade to overcome paralysis by using brain-computer interfaces to bypass damaged spinal cords, providing a sense of touch is a necessity for truly proper treatment. As anyone with peripheral neuropathy knows, not being able to feel one’s hands and feet makes it difficult to grab and manipulate physical objects.
Now, researchers from Battelle and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center are reporting that a man with clinically complete spinal cord injury, on whom we reported in the past, can now move his paralyzed hand and also feel what he’s touching.
The man had a brain-computer interface chip implanted into the motor cortex of his brain six years ago and it was assumed that his injury is too severe to ever be able to tap the nerve signals related to touch. Turns out there is an unfelt signal that was detected by the researchers, which does reach the brain via unexpected pathways, and which they can detect using the brain-computer interface. In turn, the signal is translated and directed to a haptic device that creates a vibration that produces a sense of touch. The development is reported in a published study in journal Cell.
The Battelle team that developed the technology is working on turning it into a system that can be used at home, as right now it is tethered to power supplies and computers.
“In this proof of principle report, the authors have leveraged on a rarely appreciated aspect of spinal cord injury to provide a novel and important advancement in neurological functioning using a brain-computer interface,” said Dr. Keith Tansey, Professor of Neurosurgery and Neurobiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Past President of the American Spinal Injury Association. “The notion that clinical completeness in spinal cord injury is very often neurophysiologically ‘discomplete’ acknowledges that activity in residual neural circuitry, in this study specifically ascending sensory pathway signals, can be detected and utilized to both augment motor function but also to restore sensory perception from below the level of injury.”
Here’s a Bloomberg video report about the technology:
Study in journal Cell: Restoring the Sense of Touch Using a Sensorimotor Demultiplexing Neural Interface