One of the most devastating types of injuries that a person can suffer is a spinal injury that makes them unable to walk again. An international collaboration of scientists is working with robotic equipment under the umbrella of a project dubbed “Walk Again Project” to use non-invasive brain-machine interfaces to allow people to walk again. The process involved having people with injuries perform brain training while interacting with robot-like machines.
Tests have shown that this system has allowed some participants in the program to regain some sensation and movement. Study findings suggest that damaged spinal tissue in some people with paraplegia can be retained to some extent, the same way that some people who suffer from a stroke can regain function with enough repetition and practice.
In a study in Brazil using the brain-machine interface, eight paralyzed people made a partial recovery, but were still unable to support weight on their own legs. The partial recovery is said to have significantly improved their quality of life by giving them better control of bowel and bladder functions.
Some men who participated in the study were able to have erections again and one woman was able to have a vaginal birth and feel the baby for the first time. Oddly, the study for the first 12 months didn’t document some of the biggest improvements in quality of life for participants. The study participants visualized moving muscles by having them wear virtual reality goggles and they were given tactile feedback on arms. The brain signals were picked up by electrodes and used to control a robotic apparatus. In addition to improving their ability to visualize limb movements, the participants regained some feeling and movement. The participants in the study had been paralyzed form 3-13 years.
“For the first time in many years they were able to voluntarily control their muscles,” he says. “They could move their legs or contract muscles under voluntary control.”