Groundbreaking scientific research is offering hope for paraplegics who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries. Through a process combining a non-invasive brain-machine interface (BMI) with virtual and mechanical actuators, eight patients who have been paralyzed for five to thirteen years reported being able to feel sensations in their legs. These patients also exhibited improvement in voluntary muscle movement below the level of their spinal cord injury.
In the year-long study, part of the Walk Again Neurorehabilitation (or WA-NR) project, patients received a combination of visual and tactile feedback during their training – the goal being to restore autonomous movement. By the last month of training, motor recovery showed significant improvement.
The training employed three elements:
- EEG-based BMI for initiating lower limb motor movements, such as walking, standing, etc.
- Multi-channel haptic display sensory remapping systems to deliver visual and tactile feedback, and
- Physical training using a combination of robotic Body Weight Support (BWS) systems, overground BWS systems (ZeroG), and robotic exoskeletons.
A BCI (Brain-Computer Interface) can be used to help paraplegic patients gain feeling and mobility.
Initially, paraplegic patients used the virtual reality component of the system to control movements of an avatar. Over the course of the treatment, researchers believe the patients were able to reestablish a connection with nerves that had not been damaged during the injury that had caused the paralysis, but that had lain dormant because of an interruption in neurological transmissions. The scientists hypothesize that the protocols they used triggered partial recovery to the point where almost half of the participants of the Walk Again Project were upgraded from permanent to partial paralysis.
The impact of the study is such that the researchers are recommending that Brain-Machine Interface technology be implemented as a necessary component of neurorehabilitation therapy because of its ability to restore (albeit limited) neurological functionality.
In the next phase of the research, scientists will work with paraplegic individuals in whom there is not such a large gap between injury occurrence and beginning BMI treatment, believing that a quicker response time will generate even better results.