Researchers have developed a system that will allow those with spinal cord injuries to walk again – by using a computer to communicate from the brain to the base of the spine.
The man in the video below is walking thanks to a computer interface and magnets, which sense movements in his arms and allow him to move towards the football and kick it. By swinging his arm he causes his legs to move.
Although researchers, from the National Institute of Natural Science, said there is a long way to go before the technology may be used clinically, they were able to manipulate an area of the spinal cord so it could be possible create a connection to the locomotion centre in the base of the spinal cord.
The developments may mean it is possible for those who live with paraplegia, or who have been involved in accidents where areas of their spinal cord have been damaged, to be able to move their limbs even though the brain may not be able to communicate with the relevant area of the spinal cord.
The research group made an artificial connection from the brain to the spinal cord using a computer interface.
They were successful because the neural networks in the spinal cord are able of producing rhythmic movements, such as walking or swimming-like movements, even when they are not connected to the brain.
This allowed the researchers to stimulate the legs to be able to kick a football by the subject moving their arm.
The muscle activity in the arm was used to replace the brain activity. The computer interface allows the user to control the movements via a non-invasive magnet.
Yukio Nishimura, who worked on the project, said the technology has to be able to allow a greater range of movement for the user if they want it to be advanced to clinical trials in the future.
“We hope that this technology would compensate for the interrupted pathways’ function by sending an intentionally encoded command to the preserved spinal locomotor center and regain volitionally-controlled walking in indviduals with paraplegia.
“However, the major challenge that this technology does not help them to dodge obstacles and to maintain posture. We are carefully working toward clinical application in near future.”
The technology varies from that of mind-controlled suits that are being developed to help replace wheelchairs in that it does not need to directly use the brain to cause movement.
The researchers tested the movement-enabling system on subjects who are able to walk. They got them to relax their legs and control their movement using the system created by the engineers.
While the system has been created to allow those with disabilities the potential to move it also shows how the body may be able to be controlled in the future without us using our brains.
The potential for moving without using our brains does exist and we may even be able to move based on computer-created algorithms.
There are naturally many issues that would have to be overcome, but if a computer could be involved in controlling our movements this could lead to a host of possibilities for human augmentation.
Video and image one courtesy of National Institutes of Natural Sciences/Yukio Nishimura