Our brains govern our every muscle movement, from reaching out for a cup of coffee to competing in the Olympics. But when something goes wrong with the way the brain transmits messages to our muscles—most often, this is due to a stroke or an injury to the spinal cord—we lose muscle function, a condition called paralysis.
Back in 2004, a study found a pathway to potentially overcome paralysis. In the study, conducted by a team at Duke University, researchers found that there is a link between a pattern of brain signals and certain limb movements. Using this signal, microchips implanted in the brain can make it possible for paralyzed patients to control a robot arm or computer just by thinking about the movement. When this study came out, a researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience in Nottingham said that the idea of brain implants had been around for 40 years, but it was only recently that actually placing implants became possible.
Now, in 2016, the research on brain microchip implants is starting to show its promise. Two years ago, doctors implanted a chip in a patient who was paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a spinal injury. After a year of training, the patient regained control over his right hand and fingers. By thinking hard about moving his muscles, he can pick up a bottle, pour the contents into a cup, pick up a straw and stir. He was even able to play a guitar video game. Although his limbs are no longer directly connected to his brain, the microchip technology bypasses his spinal injury to transmit brain signals directly to his hand muscles.
The amazing news understandably comes with more issues that need to be addressed before the treatment can be used more widely. For one, the patient currently needs to be connected to computers in the lab in order to move; for another, there is much work left before patients can gain significant independence in mobility.
But the potential behind this technology is starting to see the light. From monkeys with brain chip implants steering a wheelchair to paralysis patients voluntarily moving muscles after having their spines stimulated, this work has come a long way. As the patient in this 2016 study says, “Something will come around that makes living with this injury better.”
Did You Know?
The human backbone, or spinal column, is made of 33 vertebrae. But the number of vertebrae varies in different organisms: frogs have no more than 9, most birds have 13 to 25 in the neck, and snakes can have more than 300 that make them slinky and flexible.
Image credit: Omphalosskeptic