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Next phase for spinal cord injury-related tech: human trial

Paralysis centrally involves damaged neural pathways that block communication between an affected person’s brain and subsequent limb movement. In what was recently termed the “holy grail” of bionic research, scientists are focused on a device that can promote brain/limb communication by bypassing marred pathways.

As noted in a recent media account of new developments that are engendering considerable hope and enthusiasm in the realm of spinal cord injury research, a so-called “bionic spine” will hopefully “help the brain find new ways of doing things.”

Here’s how researchers envision it working in a select group of patients that will test the device in a trial next year at an Australian hospital.

First, the bionic spine — which is similar in size to a small paperclip — will be implanted in those patients’ brains. The device will sit atop what is called the motor cortex, which the above-cited article terms “the part of the brain where nerve impulses that initiate voluntary muscle movements come from.”

Researchers say that movement-related signals coming from the cortex — which are blocked in the case of a paralyzed individual — will be noted by electrodes embedded in the bionic spine. They will pass the signals to another tiny device implanted in the shoulder, which will send commands to affected limbs instructing them to move.

It is important to note, scientists say, that the spine does not repair already existing neural damage in any way. Rather, the signals it sends bypass damaged areas and are intended to provide a new route for communication between the brain and paralyzed body parts.

A chief researcher says that, while a patient with an implant will initially have to think about limb movement, communication over time is anticipated to become more automatic as brain signals to limbs become “more readily converted into movements.”

All stories relating to new spinal cord technologies and therapies are obviously exciting. Hopefully the bionic spine bears fruit.

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