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‘Bionic spinal cord’ trial for humans

Melbourne researchers developing a "bionic spine" - effectively allowing a person to control robotic limbs through their thoughts. Royal Melbourne Hospital lead researchers Dr Tom Oxley and Dr Nick Opie are in the early stages of development. Photo David Caird

Melbourne researchers developing a ‘bionic spine’ – effectively allowing a person to control robotic limbs through their thoughts. Royal Melbourne Hospital lead researchers Dr Tom Oxley (pictured) and Dr Nick Opie are in the early stages of development. Photo David Caird

MELBOURNE – [AAP] A ‘revolutionary’ device implanted in a brain blood vessel may one day enable people with spinal cord injuries to walk again, say Melbourne researchers.

Their limbs won’t be reactivated, but the person’s direct thought may be able to control equipment that can move the limbs.

The device is a minimally invasive brain machine interface – a bionic implant that translates thought into action.

It consists of a stent-based electrode, stentrode, which is implanted within a blood vessel in the brain.

It records the type of neural activity that has been shown in pre-clinical animal trials to move limbs though an exoskeleton, a mobility assist device, or to control bionic limbs.

The device, the size of a small paperclip, will be implanted in the first human trial, involving three people, at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017.

The pre-clinical trial results, published in Nature Biotechnology, show the device is capable of recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain’s motor cortex, without the need for high risk open brain surgery.

‘The technical problem was how do you safely leave electrodes inside the brain, in a blood vessel inside the brain, without causing any damage to the subject,’ Dr Thomas Oxley told AAP.

The lead author and neurologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and research fellow at The Florey Institute of Neurosciences and the University of Melbourne, described the stentrode as revolutionary and acting like ‘a bionic spinal cord’ carrying messages out of the brain.

‘We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery.’

The vision of the 39 scientists is for the device to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands.

Success could mean a software system on a computer which a paraplegic person could control via particular thoughts, including the lights in the house or their wheelchair, Dr Oxley said.

Co-investigator, biomedical engineer Dr Nicholas Opie said the concept was similar to an implantable cardiac pacemaker.


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