Can modern technology help people move again?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Can modern technology help people move again?

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It’s a remarkable age we live in when lab animals and a few people have controlled computer cursors and robotic arms using their thoughts, through brain implants.

Now, researchers at Sawitzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and an international network of collaborators are taking things a step further. They’re wirelessly connecting brain implants to electrical stimulators on the body, in the hopes that people can regain control over their paralyzed limbs.

They’ve already had some success. In their labs, a primate with spinal cord injury regained control of its paralyzed leg through this “neuroprosthetic interface.” The interface decoded brain activity associated with walking movements, and relayed this information to the spinal cord, below its injury, through electrodes that stimulated the leg muscles to move.

A feasibility clinical study has begun to test the interface in people with spinal cord injury. Neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine, who led the collaboration, cautions that it may still take several years before the intervention can be completely tested. But if successful, this could pave the way to actually reversing paralysis.