Pioneering research by scientists at a North East university could help people who have been paralysed to re-gain the use of their hands.
The researchers at Newcastle University have been able to restore the ability to grab objects with a paralysed hand using spinal cord stimulation.
The work, which has been funded by the Wellcome Trust, could help stroke and spinal injury victims as the research has shown that by connecting the brain to a computer and then the computer to the spinal cord, it is possible to restore movement.
The discovery opens up the possibility of new treatments within the next few years which could help stroke victims or those with spinal cord injuries regain some movement in their arms and hands as currently there is no cure for upper limb paralysis.
The work, led by Dr Andrew Jackson, Research Fellow at Newcastle University and Dr Jonas Zimmermann, now at Brown University in America, is published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
Dr Jackson said: “When someone has a damaged motor cortex or spinal cord the problem is that the signal from the brain to the muscles isn’t getting through. What we have done here is restore that connection, to allow the signal telling the hand to move to reach the spinal cord. By exploiting surviving neural networks below the injury, we can activate natural actions like grasping using just a few stimulation sites. This is the first time that anyone has done that.”
Dr Jackson said their research differed from other work in the field because it targets the spinal cord instead of a muscle, therefore allowing the subject to grasp which uses a lot of different muscles.
“We are just replacing the connection that has been injured,” he said.
The team first trained macaque monkeys to grasp and pull a spring-loaded handle. The monkeys were then temporarily paralysed, using a drug that wore off after about two hours.
During that time the monkey had no movement in their hand and was unable to grasp, even though most of the brain was functioning normally. But when the stimulation circuit was switched on the monkey was able to control its own arm and pull the handle.
The next stage will be to further develop the technology to eventually have a small implant for use in patients that can then form the link between the brain and the muscles.
Dr Jackson said: “It’s important not to get people’s hopes up without cause, that this is imminently going to be available to people. Looking at literature and work to date in this field, there was a five year gap between demonstration in monkeys and deomonstrations in people.
“Looking at past history is it reasonable to think it may take five years between demonstrations in monkeys and demonstrations in human patients.”
He added: “Much of the technology we used for this is already being used separately in patients today, and has been proven to work. We just needed to bring it all together.”
Dr Jackson said to bring this research forward towards using it in humans they would need to find a way of powering it without being connected to the mains supply.
“What we are working on is taking the functionality of that equipment and getting a device that’s small enough to be implanted in the skin, powered by a battery or wireless through the skin,” he said. “All are important steps that need to be taken before we can move this to humans.”
Dr John Williams, head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust said: “The Newcastle University team’s research, which harnesses the intact portions of the nervous system and creates new artificial connections, is at the cutting edge of neuro and rehabilitation science.
“When used alone or in combination with other rehabilitation approaches, this technique could lead to significant improvements in hand function and transform the lives of paralysed patients.”