A new study has shown that a paralysed man with a spinal cord injury was able to control his legs by using a device that read his brain.
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine say the preliminary ‘proof-of-concept’ study shows that it is possible to use brain waves to control a person’s legs.
The patient who was used in the study had been paralysed for five years. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), he managed to walk just under four metres with support.
His brainwaves were interpreted by a computer which took the electrical signals from his brain and sent them down to electrodes placed around his knees to stimulate his leg muscles and create movement.
Researchers initially trained the participant to control an avatar in a virtual reality environment. He then underwent training to exercise and strengthen his leg muscle before later practising walking whilst suspended 5cm above the ground to enable him to move his legs without supporting his body. Over the 19-week testing period he began walking on the ground whilst wearing a body-support system to prevent him from falling.
Although a spinal cord injury prevents the flow of sensory and motor nerve messages from the brain, the brain is still able to create messages that the legs can receive. In this study, the ‘brain-computer interface’ bypassed the damaged spinal cord to relay the motor nerve messages to the man’s legs. When the patient thought about walking, his leg muscles were stimulated to move. When he stopped thinking about walking, his leg muscles stopped moving.
According to Science Daily, this was the first time someone with complete paralysis in both legs due to a spinal cord injury was able to walk “without relying on manually controlled robotic limbs.”
Dr. An Do, one of the lead researchers involved in the study, said, "Even after years of paralysis the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking. We showed that you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury.”
This is a really interesting study. Although the University of California researchers said that maintaining balance was still an issue that needed addressing, it shows the kind of promise a non-invasive system like this could have upon a potentially invasive alternative using for example, brain implants, on the ability of brain waves being able to control prostheses.
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Penny Fitzpatrick is a Senior Clinical Negligence Solicitor with Slater and Gordon in London.
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