Brain training, robotics help paraplegics regain some movement

August 13, 2016
John Quinn

Complete spinal cord paralysis is thought to be irreversible, but new research suggests brain-controlled robotics with tactile feedback may reactivate circuitry between the brain and nerves, effectively restoring some lower-body movement and sensation.

In a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Report, the method resulted in seven participants improving from complete paraplegia to incomplete paraplegia. About halfway through training, spinal cords that were once damaged and dormant improved.

“I was shocked,” lead study author Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, director of the center for neuroengineering at Duke University, told FoxNews.com. “I would never expect in six, seven months we could see signs of recovery of any sort. Some of these patients had [spinal] lesions for more than a decade.”

Seven of eight participants— six men and two women— completed three stages of training over 12 months as part of a study by the Walk Again Project in Sao Paolo, Brazil, a collaboration of more than 100 scientists from 25 countries.

During most of the training, patients wore a sleeve equipped with sensors that gave tactile feedback, similar to the buzzing jolts felt by a gamer using a handheld controller. The patient’s brain generates a realistic sensation that his or her leg is working, and participants reported feeling like they were moving again.

Patients began by working in virtual reality, where they learned how to operate their own avatar. They were fitted with caps lined with non-invasive electrodes that recorded their brain activity through electroencephalogram (EEG) and were asked to imagine walking in their virtual environment. Scientists did not observe the expected signals in areas associated with motor control of the legs. But six to eight weeks into the training, they witnessed brain activity when patients thought about moving their legs.

“Interesting enough, at that point, they started reporting that they had a very different experience— [they were] feeling the tactile feedback, even in virtual reality, telling them, ‘I know I’m upright and standing, but it feels like my legs are moving,’” said Nicolelis, also a neurobiology professor at Duke.

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