Paralyzed patients may soon enough be given the chance to walk again thanks to a new development called the 'bionic spine'. This tiny device was developed by researchers from Australia. It is injected into a blood vessel next to the brain, enabling it to read electrical signals, feeding this information into an exoskeleton, bionic limbs, or a wheelchair.
Consequently, this can give paraplegic patients more mobility using just their subconscious thoughts. In creating the bionic spine, Neurologist and lead researcher, Thomas Oxley, from the Royal Melbourne Hospital hopes that through this device, function and mobility will be returned to patients with complete paralysis .
Adding to its list of benefits, the device is relatively easy to implement. The device only measures 3cm long and is just a few millimeters wide. It is no larger than the size of a paperclip. To insert the bionic spine, a small incision needs to be made at the back of the patient's neck. It is then inserted into the blood vessel that connects to the brain, via a catheter.
Once it reaches the top of the motor cortex (the part of the brain that controls muscular activity), the bionic spine is left inside. The whole procedure takes just a few hours and is only minimally invasive. It therefore avoids the need for high risk open brain surgery.
According to one of the team members, Nicholas Opie, this is a procedure that the Royal Melbourne staff do often, normally to remove blood clots. The only difference in this case is that the device is inserted and left inside, rather than removed. Once the bionic spine is in place and implanted, small electrodes on its exterior attach themselves to the walls of the vein.
It then starts to record electrical signals from the motor cortex. These signals are in turn transmitted to another device that is implanted in the patient's shoulder, translating these signals into commands to control wheelchairs, an exoskeleton, prosthetic limbs or computers via Bluetooth.
Of course, this isn't something that the patient will be able to do immediately. Proper training is required to enable patients to use deliberate thoughts on how to maneuver bionic limbs and other apparatuses, and learn how to control them with their subconscious thoughts.
Furthermore, this isn't the first technology created to help paralyzed patients move with neural signals. Other well known methods involve the removing of a piece of the skull, known as a craniotomy, which carries a risk of infection and other complications.
Another existing procedure involves the penetration of thousands of electrodes into the brain. The downside to this method is that it is only effective for up to a year as the brain then begins to treat it like a foreign object, growing scar tissue over it.
Clearly, the device's small size may be its biggest advantage. So far though, the bionic spine has only been tested on sheep. Human trials are said to commence in 2017 and three patients have already been selected as the first recipients.
To find out more about the bionic spine and how it works, watch this video: