As always, the very coolest research in tech is being done in the medical field. Today, word’s getting out about an exciting new procedure that could help those paralyzed walk with the help of bionics and exoskeletons. It’s elegant, minimally invasive, and human trials could start as soon as next year.
The procedure was developed in Melbourne, Australia, by researchers in neurology and biomedicine from Melbourne University, the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It revolves around what’s being called a bionic spine — but unlike human spines, this one’s the size of a straightened paper clip. That spine has 12 electrodes that can conduct electrical signals sent from the brain — specifically, ones that tell legs to walk — through a series of small wires to a transmitter placed just below the skin on the chest. That transmitter then facilitates delivery of those messages to any number of mechanical prostheses, from wheelchairs to exoskeletons.
The discovery means giving agency back to those with paralysis. While they won’t be able to walk without the aid of wheelchairs or exoskeletons, the discovery will allow them to move around naturally, using thought. They’ll be able to think about walking, and a connected exoskeleton will get the message and move, just like how it would happen for a non-paralyzed person.
So, how does it work? The bionic spine is attached to a catheter and injected into the jugular vein. That vein goes straight up to the motor cortex, and that’s where the bionic spine will get its signals from. Once the spine has made contact with the motor cortex, it’s left there, where connective tissue gradually grows around it to hold it in place. And, because it’s sneaking up into the body through a vein, there’s no concern about the body’s immune system rejecting the bionic spine, either. The entire process could be completed in hours.
The research team has had successful trials using sheep, and is now preparing to begin human trials next year at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The project moved forward rapidly, thanks in large part to millions of dollars in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the U.S. Army.