Science Fact – Robotics Could Help Spinal Injury Victims Move Again

Groundbreaking new technology, originally developed by the US military to help wounded soldiers who have lost limbs regain movement in prosthetic limbs, could have the capability to help spinal injury victims as well. The research, funded by the US Department of Defense and developed by the Neurophotonics Research Center, will develop a two-way fibre optic link between nerve endings and prosthetic limbs, but could also be used to ‘patch’ spinal cord injuries.

Giving amputees the chance to ‘feel’ again

For amputees, the fibre optic link allows signals to be sent between the brain and the artificial limb, allowing the user to move and even ‘feel’. But the research team leading the development also predicts that the same technology will eventually allow doctors to ‘patch’ spinal cord injuries and restore movement to parts of the body that have been paralysed. Although this application of the technology is still some way off, the researchers believe that the first positive steps in developing robotic patch technology have been made.

The project is being funded by DARPA with a grant of £5.6million and while the technology is initially being designed to help military personnel returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it could have major implications for civilian use as well. The goal is to develop a link that is compatible with living tissue which will connect powerful nanotechnology to the human nervous system through thousands of sensors running in a single fibre. Unlike electronic nerve interfaces, the fibre optic version has a much lower chance of being rejected by the human body. It is hoped that the technology will go on to treat spinal injuries by patching the broken link in the spinal cord and allowing neuro-impulses to be transmitted from the brain to muscles and tissue below the initial break.

Science fact, not science fiction

Although this sounds like science fiction, scientists now have the technology to develop it into a viable method of treating such injuries, and the medical expertise to understand exactly how the human nervous system works. With the development of nanotechnology, implants that can stimulate nerve impulses are only a few years away and could mean a revolution in the way neurological disorders and spinal injuries are treated.

Research teams across the world have currently been working on developing individual pieces of the solution, but the grant from DARPA has enabled the Neurophotonics Research Center to call in teams from some of the most prestigious research institutes (both military and civilian) to start putting the puzzle together. They hope that now everyone is working towards the same goal, they will be able to develop an integrated system that works at the cellular level within the next few years. By bringing together an advanced optical nerve stimulation process and technology that senses the neural impulses of the brain and then relays those impulses to the body, the team could create the ultimate two-way fibre optic interface and take neurotechnology to a new level. Marc Christensen, director of the Center, describes the research as having the potential to revolutionise the field of brain interfaces and believes that it could have “immeasurable benefits to humanity”. For spinal injury victims, it could mean that there is now a glimmer of hope that they will be able to regain full movement of previously useless limbs and that a chance for full recovery is now a viable, if still distant, hope.