Nav: Home

Micro implants could restore standing and walking

December 02, 2019

When Vivian Mushahwar first applied to grad school, she wrote about her idea to fix paralysis by rewiring the spinal cord.

It was only after she was accepted into a bioengineering program that the young electrical engineer learned her idea had actually prompted laughter.

"I figured, hey I can fix it, it's just wires," Mushahwar said. "Yeah, well, it's not just wires. So I had to learn the biology along the way."

It's taken Mushahwar a lot of work over two decades at the University of Alberta, but the Canada Research Chair in Functional Restoration is still fixated on the dream of helping people walk again. And thanks to an electrical spinal implant pioneered in her laboratory and work in mapping the spinal cord, that dream could become a reality in the next decade.

Because an injured spinal cord dies back, it's not simply a matter of reconnecting a cable. Three herculean feats are needed. You have to translate brain signals. You have to figure out and control the spinal cord. And you have got to get the two sides talking again.

People tend to think the brain does all the thinking, but Mushahwar says the spinal cord has built-in intelligence. A complex chain of motor and sensory networks regulate everything from breathing to bowels, while the brain stem's contribution is basically "go!" and "faster!" Your spinal cord isn't just moving muscles, it's giving you your natural gait.

Other researchers have tried different avenues to restore movement. By sending electrical impulses into leg muscles, it's possible to get people standing or walking again. But the effect is strictly mechanical and not particularly effective. Mushahwar's research has focused on restoring lower-body function after severe injuries using a tiny spinal implant. Hair-like electrical wires plunge deep into the spinal grey matter, sending electrical signals to trigger the networks that already know how to do the hard work.

In a new paper in Scientific Reports, the team showcases a map to identify which parts of the spinal cord trigger the hip, knees, ankles and toes, and the areas that put movements together. The work has shown that the spinal maps have been remarkably consistent across the animal spectrum, but further work is required before moving to human trials.

The implications of moving to a human clinical setting would be massive, but must follow further work that needs to be done in animals. Being able to control standing and walking would improve bone health, improve bowel and bladder function, and reduce pressure ulcers. It could help treat cardiovascular disease--the main cause of death for spinal cord patients--while bolstering mental health and quality of life. For those with less severe spinal injuries, an implant could be therapeutic, removing the need for months of gruelling physical therapy regimes that have limited success.

"We think that intraspinal stimulation itself will get people to start walking longer and longer, and maybe even faster," said Mushahwar. "That in itself becomes their therapy."

Progress can move at a remarkable pace, yet it's often maddeningly slow.

"There's been an explosion of knowledge in neuroscience over the last 20 years," Mushahwar said. "We're at the edge of merging the human and the machine."

Given the nature of incremental funding and research, a realistic timeline for this type of progress might be close to a decade.

Mushahwar is the director of the SMART Network, a collaboration of more than 100 U of A scientists and learners who intentionally break disciplinary silos to think of unique ways to tackle neural injuries and diseases. That has meant working with researchers like neuroscientist Kathryn Todd and biochemist Matthew Churchward, both in the psychiatry department, to create three-dimensional cell cultures that simulate the testing of electrodes.

The next steps are fine-tuning the hardware--miniaturizing an implantable stimulator--and securing Health Canada and FDA approvals for clinical trials. Previous research has tackled the problem of translating brain signals and intent into commands to the intraspinal implant; however, the first generation of the intraspinal implants will require a patient to control walking and movement. Future implants could include a connection to the brain.

It's the same goal Mushahwar had decades ago. Except now it's no longer a laughable idea.

"Imagine the future," Mushahwar said. "A person just thinks and commands are transmitted to the spinal cord. People stand up and walk. This is the dream."
-end-


University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry

Related Spinal Cord Articles:

Stem cells can help repair spinal cord after injury
Spinal cord injury often leads to permanent functional impairment. In a new study published in the journal Science researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden show that it is possible to stimulate stem cells in the mouse spinal cord to form large amounts of new oligodendrocytes, cells that are essential to the ability of neurons to transmit signals, and thus to help repair the spinal cord after injury.
Improving treatment of spinal cord injuries
A group led by UC Riverside bioengineering professor Victor G.
Spinal cord gives bio-bots walking rhythm
Miniature biological robots are making greater strides than ever, thanks to the spinal cord directing their steps.
Co-delivery of IL-10 and NT-3 to enhance spinal cord injury repair
Spinal cord injury (SCI) creates a complex microenvironment that is not conducive to repair; growth factors are in short supply, whereas factors that inhibit regeneration are plentiful.
Locomotor engine in the spinal cord revealed
Researchers at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have revealed a new principle of organization which explains how locomotion is coordinated in vertebrates akin to an engine with three gears.
Neurological signals from the spinal cord surprise scientists
With a study of the network between nerve and muscle cells in turtles, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have gained new insight into the way in which movements are generated and maintained.
An 'EpiPen' for spinal cord injuries
An injection of nanoparticles can prevent the body's immune system from overreacting to trauma, potentially preventing some spinal cord injuries from resulting in paralysis.
From spinal cord injury to recovery
Spinal cord injury disconnects communication between the brain and the spinal cord, disrupting control over part of the body.
Transplanting adult spinal cord tissues: A new strategy of repair spinal cord injury
Spinal cord injury repair is one of the most challenging medical problems, and no effective therapeutic methods has been developed.
Gene medication to help treat spinal cord injuries
The two-gene medication has been proven to recover motor functions in rats.
More Spinal Cord News and Spinal Cord Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.