A new high-tech implant could be the key to helping the brain communicate with damaged nerves – at least in rhesus macaques. Swiss neurosurgeon Jocelyn Bloch and her colleagues at Lausanne University Hospital successfully tested a device that can allow monkeys with spinal cord damage to walk again.
In the experiment, Bloch and her colleagues at Lausanne University Hospital worked with a monkey that had its spinal cord partially cut. While there was nothing wrong with the monkey’s brain or leg, nerves weren’t able to communicate with the limb to tell the muscles when to move. When Dr. Bloch placed electrodes on a part of the monkey’s brain associated with leg movement, and another set along the spinal cord, below the injury, these signals were able to bypass the damaged nerves entirely.
The electrodes are connected to a device that passes brain signals through a computer, and then back to the spine. In a video of the experiment, you can see a macaque go from limping and deliberately avoiding putting weight on the leg, to suddenly walking on a treadmill with the affected leg.
The new technology builds on research into prosthetic limbs. There have been many attempts in recent years to manufacture prosthetics that can be controlled by the wearer’s thoughts. However, this is the first time this technology has been used to bypass faulty nerves and reactivate an injured limb directly. The implants are already undergoing a human clinical trial to see if the treatment is just as effective in humans as it is in other primates.
Images via EPFL