The key to helping paraplegic patients learn to walk again might be in new medical research that has helped paralyzed monkeys regain their mobility. A new study showed that two paralyzed monkeys recovered movement in their legs following surgery implanting electronic implants.
If this research can be translated successfully into humans, it would offer a new path to recovery from paralysis, one that will require occupational therapy to help patients recover their physical abilities.
The research was conducted at the Ecole polytechnique federal de Lausanne in Switzerland. Wireless implants positioned on the spines of each monkeys acted to communicate nerve signals traveling between to the spine from the brain. This interface enabled brain signals to “jump over” the injured point on the spine, CNN explained. As a result, each monkey’s brain was able to send signals to the spine, activating specific muscles in the legs. This capability was observed just six days following the surgery.
Even when a person is paralyzed, the brain continues to think about walking and it continues to create the signals that command this movement, researcher Gregoire Courtine told CNN. The nerve stimulator releases electricity that reproduces the signals that trigger movement.
While the recovered movement in the monkeys who had the electronic implants shows potential, comparable results in humans will be more challenging. Ali Rezi, director of the Neurological Institute at Ohio State University, told CNN that the part of the brain that controls leg movement is much deeper inside the human brain compared to the monkey brain.
But Rezi, who was not part of the Swiss research, added that until now, no one had showed it was possible to link brain signals to leg movements. This research shows how technology could help overcome injury to regain lost movement, he said.
The Swiss researchers have already begun a trial testing spinal implants in humans. But Courtine tempers expectations with caution. The technology won’t cure people of paralysis. More realistically, he believes it could improve their quality of life, he told CNN. But that hope is more than many paraplegic patients have now. If this technology does becomes an approved treatment for humans, occupational therapists will be called upon to help patients turn those recovered movements into meaningful physical activity in daily life.
To learn more about this and related topics, visit the Healthcare section of our blog.
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