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Thought-Powered ‘Bionic Spine’ Offers Hope to the Spinal Cord-Injured

A ‘bionic spine’ could enable people paralysed with spinal cord injuries to walk again using nothing more than subconscious thought.

Australian developers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Victoria say the development of the bionic spine is the “holy grail” for bionics researchers.

To date, the mind-controlled device, which is only three centimetres long and a few millimetres wide, has only been tested in sheep. But from next year, it will be implanted in three patients with lower-limb paralysis.

The procedure will involve making a tiny incision in a patient’s neck and feeding a catheter containing the device through the blood vessels leading into the brain until it reaches the motor cortex. This is the part of the brain in which nerve impulses that initiate voluntary muscle movement originate. The catheter will then be withdrawn leaving the device behind.

Electrodes fitted to the outside of the spine will detect signals sent from the motor cortex and relay them to a second device implanted in the patient’s shoulder. This device will translate the signals into commands which will be fed to bionic limbs via Bluetooth with instructions to move.

The straightforward procedure is one commonly employed to remove blood clots. Professor Terry O’Brien, the head of medicine in Royal Melbourne Hospital's neurology department said: “Calling it the bionic spine is a bit of a catchphrase. It's a device that's implanted in a blood vessel that can be implanted non-invasively - it does not require neurosurgery.

“This blood vessel overlies the motor cortex in the brain and the device can then record the neural signals that are associated with wanting to move.

“The problem with someone who is paralysed is that they still have these signals in the brain but they can't be transmitted to the limbs because they have a spinal cord injury. What this allows you to do is to bypass this, which is why it's been called the bionic spine.”

This is clearly exciting news for people with spinal cord injuries as previously, trials of devices aimed at enabling people to control so-called ‘exoskeleton limbs’ using only thought have mostly required an invasive craniotomy so the device can be implanted directly into the brain.

Although breakthroughs like this can offer significant hope for the future, it is important to remember that clinical trials involving people are still some time away and for the thousands of people who sustain a spinal cord injury in the UK every year, their priority should first be on obtaining the highest standard of treatment and rehabilitation.

People who have suffered spinal cord injuries need substantial levels of care in order to maintain their health, well-being and independence. In most cases, where someone has sustained a traumatic spinal cord injury the subsequent care and rehabilitation costs form the largest part of any claim for compensation.

Intensive spinal cord injury rehabilitation programmes can combine physical therapies with skill-building activities and counselling to provide social and emotional support and help patients adjust to the limitations and more permanent effects of their injury.

Tim Deeming is a medical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Cambridge.

The Slater and Gordon spinal injuries team has access to a network of treatment providers and medical experts with a vast range of experience in helping people who have suffered serious injuries. We can arrange medical treatment, physiotherapy, counselling, retraining, re-housing and many other rehabilitation services.

For a free consultation, call us on freephone 0800 916 9049 or contact us online and we will call you.

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