Eight people who have been paralysed for years from spinal cord injuries have regained some feeling in their legs after training with brain-controlled robotics.
The “surprising” clinical results from the Walk Again Project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, show patients have some sensations and muscle control in their legs. Researchers believe it could offer hope to people who have suffered spinal cord injuries, strokes and other conditions where they will need to regain strength, mobility and independence.
Scientists, led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, of Duke University in North Carolina, used a virtual reality system which worked with the patients’ own brain activity to simulate control of their legs during the long-term training programme. The first hopeful signs were spotted in some patients after seven months but the sensations and muscle control reported by four patients were so strong after a year that their doctors upgraded their diagnoses from complete to partial paralysis.
Among those who took part in the rehabilitation training, five people had been paralysed for at least five years while two had been paralysed for more than a decade.
Most patients said they had better bladder control and bowel function which meant they could cut back on much-need laxatives and catheters.
This in turn is encouraging for other patients as these changes reduce the risk of common infections and causes of death in people with chronic paralysis, according to Mr Nicolelis.
Speaking as the findings were published in Scientific Reports, he said: “What we’re showing in this paper is that patients who used a brain-machine interface for a long period of time experienced improvements in motor behaviour, tactile sensations and visceral functions below the level of the spinal cord injury.
“Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis.”
The eight patients spent at least two hours a week using devices controlled through their brain signals. They were all taught how to operate their own avatar, or digital likeness, in a virtual reality environment.
They wore fitted caps lined with 11 non-invasive electrodes to record brain activity.
The patients were asked to imagine walking in the virtual world and it appears “the training reinserted the representation of lower limbs into the patients’ brains”, according to Mr Nicolelis.