Australian scientists hope that a tiny device just 3cm long and a few millimeters wide will enable paralyzed patients to walk again by allowing them to control exoskeletons or bionic limbs with the power of subconscious thought.
The new device, dubbed the “bionic spine”, is the size of a small paperclip and will be implanted in three patients at the Royal Melbourne hospital in Victoria next year. The participants will be selected from the Austin Health spinal cord unit, and will be the first humans to trial the device, which so far has only been tested in sheep. The new device will be implanted in the first in-human trial at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017. By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers.
‘In our first-in-human trial, that we anticipate will begin within two years, we are hoping to achieve direct brain control of an exoskeleton for three people with paralysis.
Doctors will make a tiny cut in the neck of the patients and feed a catheter containing the bionic spine up through the blood vessels leading into the brain, until it rests on top of the motor cortex, the part of the brain where nerve impulses that initiate voluntary muscle movements come from. The catheter will then be removed, leaving the bionic spine behind.
The outside of the bionic spine is fitted with electrodes which will detect signals from the motor cortex and send them to a small device that will be implanted in the patient’s shoulder. This device will translate the signals into commands, which will be fed to the bionic limbs via Bluetooth to tell them to move.
The procedure and device were developed by researchers from the Royal Melbourne hospital, the University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, and are detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Co-principal investigator and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, Dr. Nicholas Opie, described it as a straightforward procedure that would only take a couple of hours.
“This is a procedure that Royal Melbourne staff do commonly to remove blood clots,” Opie said. “The difference with our device is we have to put it in, and leave it in.”
However, the bionic spine is minimally invasive and less cumbersome than previously developed devices, like the cap and robotic suit. Opie said the trial of the device would take place in patients with lower-limb paralysis first, because they were among those with the most to gain from the technology.