New research is offering hope to those with paralysis by using virtual reality and therapy. Over 25 million people around the world live with severe spinal injuries and numerous studies are being conducted to free them from immobility and lack of sensation.
The Walk Again Project based in Sao Paulo, Brazil is an international group of scientists from around the world dedicated to creating an exoskeleton device to help those with paralysis regain full body mobility. Thanks to founder Miguel Nicolelis, MD, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Neuroscinece, Neurobiology, Biomedical Engineering, Neurosciences and Psychology at Duke University, a new study is offering hope to those with paralysis.
Dr. Nicolelis is the first person to propose and demonstrate that animals and humans can use their brain activity to directly control neuroprosthetic devices using brain-machine interfaces.
In the latest groundbreaking study, eight patients who had some ability to walk with the assistance of crutches, walkers, braces or human help were recruited. Five had been paralyzed at least five years while the other two were paralyzed for more than a decade. They wore fitted caps lined with eleven non-invasive electrodes to record their brain activity while they donned goggles with a virtual reality system. They were taught to create their own avatar, personal likeness, and played football while imagining themselves walking. They used this device that was controlled by their brain signals at least two hours a week for twelve months. In addition, they underwent physical therapy and extensive simulation by robotic machines that moved their muscles. Walking devices and overhead harness were also utilized.
Researchers recorded changes in the patient’s EEG patterns, muscle contractions, voluntary limb movements and sensitivity in the areas below their spinal injury.
Dr. Nicolelis says,
For the first time in many years they were able to voluntarily control their muscles. They could move their legs or contract their muscles under voluntary control. Some people had their level of paralysis upgraded to a less severe rating of “incomplete paraplegia.” This has not been seen before. I call this an important milestone.
The results were a surprise. Originally, the study was to use brain signals, picked up by the electrodes to control a bulky robotic exoskeleton. However, the eight patients did better than expected. Within seven months, four of the patients experienced muscle control and sensation. Their quality of life improved, as some had control over bowels and bladders, some men experienced erections and one woman was able to deliver her baby vaginally.
Dr. Nicolelis adds,
She could feel he baby for the first time. She could feel the contractions.
The study showed that people with severe spinal injuries still retain some functional tissue and that damaged spinal tissue can be retrained to regain body function through retraining, repetition and practice.
Plans are to expand the research to a new study group. The goal is to help those with paralysis to one day regain full function.