Posted on Dec 04, 2019, 4 p.m.
New research published in Scientific Reports from the University of Alberta reveals a map aimed at identifying which parts of the spinal cord may trigger areas that put movement together such as the hips, ankles, toes, and knees.
Vivan Mushahwar has been working over two decades working to bring her dream of helping people to walk again to come to fruition, and along with her colleagues, she has developed an electrical spinal implant in her lab while mapping out the spinal cord that may make her dream become a reality.
"I figured, hey I can fix it, it's just wires," Mushahwar said. "Yeah, well, it's not just wires. So I had to learn the biology along the way."
Injured spinal cords die back, meaning it is not just reconnecting wires; brain signals needs to be translated, the spinal cord needs to be controlled, and there needs to be a way for the brain and spinal cord to communicate.
The spinal cord has a lot of built in intelligence, it is not just moving muscles it provides natural gait and it is a complex chain of motor and sensory networks that regulates things one may not think of such as breathing and vacating the bowels, while the brain stem basically says go.
Over the decades, different approaches have been explored by researchers to try and restore movement, sending electrical impulses into leg muscle may help people to stand or walk but the effect is strictly mechanical and/or not particularly effective. This research focused on restoring lower body function after severe injuries using a tiny spinal implant; tiny wires implanted into spinal grey matter send electrical signals to trigger networks that control movement using spinal maps that have been found to be consistent in animal studies.
Although the work is not ready to move to human trials the implications are promising, being able to control standing and walking could improve bone health, reduce pressure ulcers, as well as improve improve bladder and bowel function. Additionally this could even help to boost mental health while improving quality of life and helping to combat cardiovascular disease which is the main cause of death for spinal cord patients. Those with less severe injuries could even benefit from such an implant therapeutically by possibly eliminating the need for months of physical therapy.
"We think that intraspinal stimulation itself will get people to start walking longer and longer, and maybe even faster," said Mushahwar. "That in itself becomes their therapy."
"There's been an explosion of knowledge in neuroscience over the last 20 years," Mushahwar said. "We're at the edge of merging the human and the machine.”
It may be close to a decade before this technology is ready to be tested in humans, in the meantime, the team will be focused on continuing to fine tune hardware and making the implantable stimulator smaller, preparing to progress and secure Health Canada and FDA approvals for clinical trials.
It wasn’t really that long ago when Mushahwas first had the idea and learned that it had prompted laughter from others, her goal is still the same, but it is no longer a laughing matter.
"Imagine the future," Mushahwar said. "A person just thinks and commands are transmitted to the spinal cord. People stand up and walk. This is the dream."
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This article is not intended to provide medical diagnosis, advice, treatment, or endorsement.