Brain and Spine Implants Let a Paralyzed Monkey Walk Again

Enabling someone with paralyzed legs to rise to their feet and walk again has long been considered impossible, the kind of bogus miracle promised by faith healers. But who needs faith healers when you have clever scientists and electricity? In the new field of bioelectronic medicine, doctors may soon make the miraculous a reality. A new experiment using paralyzed monkeys has shown the way toward that goal.

Researchers conducted a proof-of-concept study using two monkeys with partial spinal cord injuries, which prevented brain commands from reaching a back leg. The researchers used electrodes implanted in the monkeys’ brains to record electrical signals from the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement. They used a computer to decode those signals and translate them into commands sent to other electrodes implanted in the monkeys’ lumbar spines; those electrodes stimulated the spinal cord. This brain-spine interface (BSI) bypassed the injured part of the spinal cord, allowing the monkeys’ natural movement commands to reach their injured legs.

Study coauthor David Borton, a neuroengineer at Brown University, says he was surprised by how effortlessly the animals took to the technology. “Their behavior did not make us think that they were bothered by it at all,” he tells IEEE Spectrum. “They didn’t turn around and look at their legs—they just walked.”

Much research remains to be done before humans can benefit from this technology,…[Read more]