A new "bionic spine" developed by researchers in Australia offers paralyzed patients the chance to walk again by allowing them to control their limbs through signals from the brain.
In a study featured in the journal Nature Biotechnology, scientists from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health and the University of Melbourne described how they were able to create the device as well as the procedure required to implant it in a patient's body.
The bionic spine, which is about the size of a regular paper clip, is designed to be placed on top of the brain's motor cortex. From here, the device will detect and record high-quality signals that the brain emits.
Another device will be implanted in the patient's shoulder, which will be responsible for translating the brain signals into commands that will allow a set of bionic limbs to move.
Nicholas Opie, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer from the University of Melbourne and one of the authors of the study, said that the entire procedure will only take a few hours to finish.
"This is a procedure that Royal Melbourne staff do commonly to remove blood clots," Opie pointed out. "The difference with our device is we have to put it in, and leave it in."
Three patients at the Royal Melbourne Hospital's Austin Health spinal cord unit will be implanted with the bionic spine. They will serve as the first humans to test the device, which has been proven effective on sheep subjects.
Professor Terry O'Brien, head of the neurology department at Royal Melbourne, said that bionics researchers stand to benefit significantly from the development of the new implantable device.
He explained that while recipients of the bionic spine would have to learn how to think in order to move their bionic appendages, they will eventually figure out how to trigger these movements subconsciously.
While the device would not be able to repair damaged brain pathways, it would instead allow the organ to discover new ways on how to carry out movement.
As an example, O'Brien cited how a person with a paralyzed hand would be able to pick up a phone using their non-paralyzed hand.
Even though the brain is unable to carry out an action that it is accustomed to, it is still able to devise other ways to do things. The organ is capable of learning another function to compensate what it had lost.
The bionic spine allows the brain to facilitate movement in the patient's limbs by bypassing damaged areas of the body.