Sunday, 24 April 2016

Reanimate Paralyzed Limbs through Implantable Devices

Within the next decade, individuals suffering from stroke or spinal cord injury can have their mobility restored or improved with the help of a new technology- implantable device. These machines can send out signals between areas of the nervous system or brain that have been disconnected because of injury.

The effort includes researchers from San Diego State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and several other partners. To encourage their efforts and to support development of this technology, the NSF or National Science Foundation has renewed funding for the center. Experts say there is a huge need for developing newer medical devices to assist people with traumatic or progressive neurological conditions such as spinal cord injury or stroke. The aim is to attain proof-of-concept demonstrations in the next five years. This should lay the foundation for eventual clinical devices that are approved by the government.

CSNE was instituted in 2011 with a grant of $18.5 million. Since then, the organization’s interdisciplinary team comprising of engineers, neuroscientists, computer scientists, ethicists, neurosurgeons, and industry partners has been able to come up with 'bi-directional' implantable mechanisms that send information to other areas. These devices decode and record electrical signals that are generated by the brain when an individual forms an intention, for instance, to move a hand for picking a mug. The devices can also transmit the information wirelessly, creating a new pathway (artificial) around the areas of the brain or nervous system that have been damaged.

Apart from this, CSNE is also working towards improving implantable technologies used today, including deep brain stimulators that are used for treating patients with Parkinson's disease. These transport electric pulses across the human brain at an apt frequency which is adjusted by the physician to attain the desired effect. However, this means that the human brain is bombarded constantly by electrical pulses even while the patient is resting. This can cause unwanted side effects and completely drain the battery of the implantable device, requiring recurrent replacement surgeries.

In contrast, industry partners and CSNE researchers are working towards 'closed loop' implantable devices that observe the brain and deliver any electrical stimulation only when it's required.

The funding initiated for CSNE will permit the experts to make progress in closed-loop neural interfaces and will help achieve this ambitious goal. Apart from this, NSF funding will also help the center to further expand its education programs for school teachers, K-12 students, veterans and undergraduates to other partner institutions. 

While the future looks bright for those with mobility impairment, the present is also not gloomy. Non-medical transportation facilities can be used to make travel easier and simpler for people suffering from temporary or permanent mobility impairments.