For the first time, an implant that beams instructions out of the brain has
been used to restore movement in paralysed primates, say scientists.
The team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology bypassed the injury by sending the instructions straight from the brain to the nerves controlling leg movement in Rhesus monkeys. Spinal-cord injuries block the flow of electrical signals from the brain to the rest of the body resulting in paralysis.
It is a wound that rarely heals, but one potential solution is to use technology to bypass the injury. In the study, a chip was implanted into the part of the monkeys' brain that controls movement.
Dr Gregoire Courtine, one of the researchers, said: "This is the first time that a neurotechnology has restored locomotion in primates. The movement was close to normal for the basic walking pattern, but so far we have not been able to test the ability to steer."
The technology used to stimulate the spinal cord is the same as that used in deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson's disease, so it would not be a technological leap to doing the same tests in patients.
"But the way we walk is different to primates, we are bipedal and this requires more sophisticated ways to stimulate the muscle," said Dr Courtine.
Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon from the Lausanne University Hospital, said: "The link between decoding of the brain and the stimulation of the spinal cord is completely new. "For the first time, I can image a completely paralysed patient being able to move their legs through this brain-spine interface."
Dr Mark Bacon, the director of research at the charity Spinal Research, said: "This is quite impressive work. Paralysed patients want to be able to regain real control, that is voluntary control of lost functions, like walking, and the use of implantable devices may be one way of achieving this."