Tag Archives: paralysis

Scientists find a new way to regrow nerves in spinal injuries

Researchers have demonstrated a novel method that might regrow nerve cells at the site of spinal injuries.

Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland delivered a treatment of hydrogel to rat nerve cells in a cell-culture dish.

The hydrogel contains a substance — a soluble agonist called S-220 — that activates a molecule called Epac2. Previous studies had shown that Epac2 is heavily involved in nerve growth during embryonic development.

Due to the nature of the hydrogel, the drug is released slowly, which can provide a scaffold that physically supports injured nerve cells during the regeneration process.

After the team found that the hydrogel successfully activated Epac2, they proceeded with stage two, administering it to rats with spinal injuries. The hydrogel significantly enhanced axonal outgrowth across the lesions and the rats themselves showed significant improvements in their ability to walk.

“This is something that other researchers have tried around the world in many different ways, but we found that our method actually works and is also very efficient,” said Dr. Derryck Shewan of the Institute of Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen.

That’s not all. The Epac2-activating drug not only ‘turbo-charged’ the injured nerve cells, promoting regeneration, but it also significantly reduced the inhibitory nature of the injury site, further enhancing recovery.

“The injured spinal nerves not only regenerated more robustly, they sensed the surrounding environment was not as inhibitory anymore, so the damaged nerves could more successfully regrow and cross the injury site,” said Dr. Guijarro-Belmar, co-author of the new study.

Spinal cord injuries can be devastating, potentially paralyzing patients below the site of injury. Currently, there is no cure for such damage to the spinal cord. But, in the future treatments based on self-assembling hydrogels injected in the spinal cord could provide speed up recovery and replace invasive surgery.

Elsewhere, scientists at the University of Michigan devised a nanoparticle solution that prevents spinal scars from forming, as well as boosts the immune response to promote healing rather than cause damage to nerve cells. In combination with this hydrogel therapy or other similar ones, it may prevent paralysis.

“Repairing the damaged spinal cord remains one of the greatest challenges in medicine,” said Mark Bacon, Executive and Scientific Director from International Spinal Research Trust who partly funded the research.

David Mzee standing and walking. Credit: EPFL

Electrical stimulation of spinal cord allows two paraplegics to stand and walk

David Mzee standing and walking. Credit: EPFL

David Mzee standing and walking. Credit: EPFL

Thanks to a combination of electrical stimulation and rehabilitation, two men who were paralyzed from the waist down can now stand and walk a few steps, with the aid of crutches. The innovative treatment is not a cure for paralysis but it does show that spinal nerves can be regenerated with properly targeted stimulation.

Stimulating the spinal cord as the brain would naturally is key

David Mzee suffered a terrible gymnastics accident in 2010 which left him paralyzed. After intense rehabilitation in Zurich, Switzerland, Mzee was able to regain control of his upper body and some degree of control over his right leg, but any further improvement was thought to be out of grasp. In 2011, Gert-Jan Oskam became paralyzed in a traffic accident while he was riding his bicycle.

Both patients could not walk before researchers at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne recruited them for a new therapy that involves sending electrical pulses to their spinal cord. Crucially, these electrical pulses fire discontinuously, timed with the paraplegic’s assisted lower body movements (i.e. walking in a supportive harness on a treadmill).

Today, both patients can make a few steps on their own — something that doctors told them they were unlikely to do again in their lifetimes.

The Swiss researchers who performed the therapy say that the electrical signals encourage nerves in the spinal cord to form new connections, improving muscle control and coordination. But discontinuous nerve stimulation seems to be very important. Earlier, other researchers reported how paraplegic patients were able to walk a handful of steps while their spinal cords were zapped with electricity in certain sites. However, none of these patients was able to walk when the electrical stimulation was turned off.

“They have both recovered control of their paralysed muscles and I don’t think anyone with a chronic injury, one they’ve had for six or seven years, has been able to do that before,” Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, told The Guardian. “When you stimulate the nerves like this it triggers plasticity in the cells. The brain is trying to stimulate, and we stimulate at the same time, and we think that triggers the growth of new nerve connections.”

Mzee and Oskam still have to use wheelchairs but the quality of their lives has improved dramatically. It remains to be seen whether they can advance even further — which is very well possible.

Courtine says that the sooner such a procedure can be implemented, the likelier it is that a patient can regain more control over the lower body. In the future, the researchers plan on repeating the therapy with paraplegics whose injuries are no older than a month.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature.

How technology is revolutionizing medicine

Medicine has come a long way in the past century, and we have technology to thank for much of it.

When we look at the last decades, we can see major improvements that almost seemed to happen overnight — but nothing happens overnight in medicine. Drug development and clinical trials can take years or decades, but because technology is moving so fast, medicine has been able to take significant leaps, sometimes at dramatic speeds.

Let’s have a look at just a few of the improvements brought by such developments.

Restoring movement in paralyzed patients

What started out as a sci-fi dream turns into reality more and more — several labs and research institutes across the world are making breakthroughs in restoring movement to paralyzed patients. For instance, in 2016, 24-year-old Ian Burkhart, who lost the ability to move or feel from the shoulder down in a diving accident, recovered movement in his arm, enough to pour water from a bottle into a jar and even play some Guitar Hero. Previously, in 2014, researchers had helped paraplegic patients regain some control over their legs, and brain-computer interfaces that allow paralyzed people to “type” with brain power alone were also developed.

We’re still a ways away from making these widely available treatments, but the mere fact that scientists can tackle things like paralysis, which were once thought to be a final sentence, shows how far science has gone.

Bionic eyes

There are several different types of visual prostheses—also known as bionic eyes—being developed around the world. While this technology can only restore partial vision and not full vision, this multidisciplinary approach truly seems unbelievable.

For instance, Steve Myers, a 63-year-old Iowa man will be able to see after decades of being in the dark.

“The implant consists of 60 electrodes,” Myers said. “It’s got a short cabling on it; then it has the receiver, which is about like two nickels stacked together and impregnated (with) a silicone rubber and implanted into the white of the eye.”

Getting Treated Online

Of course, this is no substitute for a real doctor, just a way to communicate with him or her.

Some medical practices now offer the ability to “see” a doctor on their website. More often than not, you leave a message on the website about what you are experiencing. A doctor reviews it and can discuss your options. While online STD testing may still be a ways away, in other cases, a lot of time, effort, and energy can be saved this way. Imagine having a urinary tract infection and your doctor easily calls in a UTI prescription at your local pharmacy. The idea is that you save a lot of time and so does the doctor — it’s a win-win situation. Of course, not all illnesses can be handled online. Serious problems always require a trip to the doctor, but for an advice or a discussion about a well-known condition, this could work out efficiently.

The Cure for HIV

Did we ever think we would truly get there? Well, we have finally seen someone cured of HIV! A child, that was infected at birth, went through 40 weeks of rigorous treatment. At 9 years old he was tested and while HIV was still found in his system, they are incapable of reproducing. If he chooses to have his own children later in life, this means he could very well not transfer the disease on to his offspring.

What the study showed was that with early treatment in those infected at birth, we could slow the progress of the disease. Education about safe sex will still be vital, especially in countries in which HIV runs rampant. This is still an impressive advancement we have made in the fight against HIV.

A sponge-filled syringe

Image via US Army.

This might not seem like a much at first, but a simple sponge-filled syringe could save numerous lives by preventing blood loss. The mechanic process is extremely simple: the sponges absorb blood, they swell up and cling to the wound, ensuring that they stay in place. Enough pressure is applied that the bleeding is temporarily stopped, giving enough time for the patient to reach a medical facility.

It can be extremely useful in war zones or in the ER.

3D Printing

At a first glance, 3D printing and medicine can have very little in common, but the two have started to entwine staggeringly fast. Cheap 3D printed prostheses are already a reality, as is biomedical printing. Tumor and cell models are also developing fast, and the fact that it’s all so cheap and fast makes the technology even more attractive for future research.

Diabetes Takes Another Hit

The year of 2016 proved to be one where diabetes took some big hits. One item, called the artificial pancreas or MiniMed670G, checks blood sugar around every 5 minutes. A needle slipped under the skin checks glucose levels and a pump worn over the abdomen administers insulin as needed. This reduces instances of hypoglycemia and improves the life of the diabetic. Additionally, Lexicon Pharmaceuticals have an inhibitor called sotagliflozin that is working wonders and is now in phase 3 trial. Not only is it able to control glucose levels in the kidneys and intestines, it’s also assisting in weight loss and lowering systolic blood pressure in diabetic patients. Both of those are often needed in conjunction with maintaining healthy glucose levels.

There are a ton more medical breakthroughs happening in recent years and we suspect that we will keep seeing more and more in the coming years as our technology continues to grow at a rapid pace. We are certainly seeing improved quality of life with many of these breakthroughs and we couldn’t be more excited!

 

 

Stanford's Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy developed a brain-computer interface that allows the disabled to type with their thoughts faster than anything previously demoed. Credit: Paul Sakuma.

Brain-computer interface allows paralyzed to type fast and accurately by power of thought alone

Researchers from Stanford University demonstrated a novel brain-to-computer hookup that enables paralyzed patients to mentally type faster and more accurately than ever before.

Stanford's Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy developed a brain-computer interface that allows the disabled to type with their thoughts faster than anything previously demoed. Credit: Paul Sakuma.

Stanford’s Jaimie Henderson and Krishna Shenoy developed a brain-computer interface that allows the disabled to type with their thoughts faster than anything previously demoed. Credit: Paul Sakuma.

Some amazing things have been achieved with brain-computer interfaces — hardware that connects a patient’s brain directly to a computer which can process the signal it emits. These can be used by a completely paralyzed patient to move mechanical arms or exoskeletons, even drones. Such interfaces can also facilitate a telepathic-like exchange of information. But while controlling a mechanical arm or exoskeleton can mean a lot for paralyzed patients, such a solution isn’t readily available to anyone because the tech can be prohibitively expensive. Instead, BCIs whose role is to facilitate communication seem far more impactful.

There are various solutions available to patients with movement disabilities. The most common tools involve tracking the eye so just by looking at control keys or cells displayed on a screen, a user is able to communicate either by typing a message or selecting pre-programmed phrases. That’s sort of how Stephen Hawking’s type to speech computer works, albeit it’s based on muscle movements because he has drooping eyelids. But BCIs, which are more modern, promise to hands-free typing much more accessible.

The three participants who took part in the trial organized by Stanford all suffer from severe limb weakness. Two suffer from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and one from a spinal cord injury sustained in an accident. Unlike other BCIs whose electrodes are placed on the scalp or the surface of the brain, the present BCI was far more invasive. A baby-aspirin-sized electrode array was inserted inside the brain, right in the motor cortex, which is the brain region responsible for controlling muscle movement.

Electrical activity recorded in the motor cortex is transmitted through a cable to a computer where algorithms process the signal. Ultimately, the signal is translated into point-and-click commands guiding a cursor to characters on an onscreen keyboard.

After minimal training, each participant was able to outperform any previous brain-computer interface meant for enhancing communication. One participant, Dennis Degray of Menlo Park, California, was able to type 39 correct characters per minute, equivalent to about eight words per minute. Degray didn’t use any automatic word-completion assistance which would have significantly boosted his performance.

“This is like one of the coolest video games I’ve ever gotten to play with,” he said. “And I don’t even have to put a quarter in it.”

The advance of the new tech is two-fold. For one, the 100 electrodes that penetrate the brain to about the thickness of a quarter offered an unprecedented resolution. Secondly, the algorithm developed by Krishna Shenoy, PhD, professor of electrical engineering, and colleagues, is vastly superior to anything that preceded it. It was no trivial matter writing code that can convert the cacophony of complex electrical signals fired by nerve cells into actions typically executed by muscles or the spinal cord in real time.

“The performance is really exciting,” said postdoctoral scholar Chethan Pandarinath, who is one of the lead authors of the study published in the journal eLIfe.  “We’re achieving communication rates that many people with arm and hand paralysis would find useful. That’s a critical step for making devices that could be suitable for real-world use.”

These results are the culmination of years of work under an international consortium known as BrainGate.

“This incredible collaboration continues to break new ground in developing powerful, intuitive, flexible neural interfaces that we all hope will one day restore communication, mobility and independence for people with neurologic disease or injury,” said Leigh Hochberg, a neurologist and neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brown University.

 

 

Mind-reading device enables completely locked-in paralyzed patients to communicate with the outside world

This non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) can detect the response of locked-in patients who are too disabled to communicate by measuring changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. Credit: Wyss Center. 

This non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) can detect the response of locked-in patients who are too disabled to communicate by measuring changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. Credit: Wyss Center.

An innovative brain-reading device lets doctors communicate with ‘locked-in’ patients who are too disabled to communicate otherwise. The system developed by Swiss researchers at the Wyss Center uses infrared light to detect variations in blood flow circulating through the brain. Some of these patterns only occur when a patient would want to say “yes” or “no”.

A way out

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is one of the most debilitating diseases out there. Patients afflicted with the neurodegenerative condition will gradually, but surely, lose bodily functions until they eventually become paralyzed. ALS’ perversion, however, lies in the fact that these patients are still aware. They can think as straight as any other person and have equally complex emotions.

Many ALS patients communicate with family members and doctors using their eye lids. When a question is posed, an ALS patient might blink his left eye for ‘yes’ or the right eye for ‘no’. Strikingly, Jean-Dominique Bauby – a French journalist who became locked-in after suffering a stroke – used a similar system to dictate his bestselling memoire. He would blink his left eye when presented with each letter of the alphabet to form words. You can imagine how painstaking and tiring this must have been.

Some ALS patients are completely locked-in, however, being unable to control even their eye lids. Then there are ALS patients who are in a vegetative state – these people are really inside a black box. For these patients, this is where this most recent innovation comes in.

Four patients (three women and one man), aged 24 to 76, who had been diagnosed with completely locked-in syndrome for more than a year were selected for the study.  The patients lived at home with their families who fed them through tubes.  Ventilation kept the patients alive as these were unable to breath on their own anymore.

For many months, researchers trained their system by asking the patients very simple and clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions like “Your husband’s name is Joachim?” or ‘Is Berlin the capital of France?’ During all this time, the patients had to wear a cap fitted with electronics that shone infrared light through the scalp.  This technique, called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), can spot variations in blood flow patterns around different regions of the brain. A computer then makes sense of all those patterns to come up with an answer.

“The striking results overturn my own theory that people with complete locked-in syndrome are not capable of communication. We found that all four people we tested were able to answer the personal questions we asked them, using their thoughts alone. If we can replicate this study in more patients I believe we could restore useful communication in completely locked-in states for people with motor neuron diseases,” said Professor Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva, Switzerland.

After the computer algorithm could score at least 70% accuracy for each patients’ questions, the researchers moved on to more complicated, personal questions. And this is where things were extremely surprising.

Some of the questions the researchers asked the patients, family alongside, dealt with quality of life. You’d imagine being locked-in is a terrible life but all four patients said they were happy with their lives.

That’s not say that all locked-in patients feel the same. We can’t speak for anyone else actually given the small sample size but that doesn’t make the finding any less surprising. It could be that these paralyzed persons have come to terms with their condition and have embraced it. Being completely paralyzed might have also plunged the patients in a meditation-like deep state.

We can’t know for sure how happy other in-locked patients are before more tests are made.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to establish reliable communication with these patients and I think that is important for them and their families,” said Niels Birbaumer, a neuroscientist who led the research at the University of Tübingen, for The Guardian. “I can say that after 30 years of trying to achieve this, it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life when it worked.”

Next, the researchers plan on expanding their method, which they published in PLoS Biology, by enabling locked-in patients to communicate beyond ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. An fNIRS-based system that would work similarly to how Bauby managed to wrote his book seems like a good start.

“Restoring communication for completely locked-in people is a crucial first step in the challenge to regain movement. The Wyss Center plans to build on the results of this study to develop clinically useful technology that will be available to people with paralysis resulting from ALS, stroke or spinal cord injury. The technology used in the study also has broader applications that we believe could be further developed to treat and monitor people with a wide range of neuro-disorders.”

 

The nervous system is like an electrical wiring. Credit: GuidesHealth.com

Scientists coax mice with injured spinal cords to regrow nerve fibers, something deemed impossible not too long ago

The nervous system is like an electrical wiring. Credit: GuidesHealth.com

The nervous system is like electrical wiring for your body. Credit: GuidesHealth.com

German researchers proved that nerve cells can regenerate in mice who suffered spinal cord injuries. These sort of injuries cause permanent disabilities like paralysis because the nerves do not regenerate by themselves. Though thought impossible, the researchers showed that they could coax one of the rodents’ molecular mechanisms to start producing new nerve cells in the site of injury using a drug called Pregabalin.

Helping neurons reach out their arms again

The human nervous system is comprised of an intricate network of nerve cells that transmit signals between different parts of the body, from head to toe. It helps to imagine this network like the body’s electrical wiring, which starts at the brain then branches out throughout the entire body. Damages to this wiring system can be catastrophic — an injury to the spinal cord, for instance, might cut the sensory input from the damaged site down. That’s because, again like an electrical wire, the neurons of the central nervous systems are connected by long projections called axons. When the axons are severed, these are unable to regrow leaving the connection discontinued permanently.

Scientists know that these axons grow during the embryonic development stage. They stop extending their arms past this stage, though. But if there’s a molecular mechanism that instructs the neuron’s axons to grow and to stop later at some point, then there’s a chance we can re-activate this re-growth process by targetting its underlying molecular brake.

This is what researchers at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) set out to do. They quickly realized it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. That’s because there are literally hundreds of active genes in every nerve cell, says neurobiologist Frank Bradke who is one the lead authors of the study.

If it weren’t for computers and algorithms that can comb through vast databases, Bradke and colleagues might have still been at it. Thanks to bioinformatics, though, they managed to zero in on a promising candidate — a gene called Cacna2d2, which is known to play an important role in synapse formation and function.

Cacna2d2 has the blueprint for the production of a protein that anchors ion channels in the cell membrane. This mechanism regulates the flow of calcium ions into the nerve cell which is integral to the release of neurotransmitters, be them serotonin or dopamine.

Investigating further, Bradke and colleagues found that a drug called Pregabalin (PGB) can bind to these calcium channel molecular anchors. They gave PGB to mice who had undergone spinal cord trauma and later found this treatment spurred new nerve connections to grow, as reported in the journal Neuron.

“Our study shows that synapse formation acts as a powerful switch that restrains axonal growth. A clinically-relevant drug can manipulate this effect,” says Bradke.

Hopefully, the first human trials with PGB might start soon, considering the drug is already prescribed to spinal cord injured patients. PGB is prescribed for its pain relieving properties and often late, a long time after the injury occurred. Until then, there are other intriguing developments. Previously, another group from Germany grew spinal cords in a petri dish and, elsewhere in Switzerland, researchers used a flexible ribbon-like implant that attaches itself to a paralyzed rat’s spinal cord allowing the rodent to walk again.

“PGB might have a regenerative effect in patients, if it is given soon enough. In the long term this could lead to a new treatment approach. However, we don’t know yet,” Bradke added.

Kris Boesen, pictured pulling weights three months after his surgery involving an experimental stem cell procedure. Credit: USC

Young man paralyzed from the neck down regains arm and hand movement following stem cell therapy

Kris Boesen, pictured pulling weights three months after his surgery involving an experimental stem cell procedure. Credit: USC

Kris Boesen, pictured pulling weights three months after his surgery involving an experimental stem cell procedure. Credit: USC

Six months ago, Kristopher (Kris) Boesen slammed into a telephone pole with his car after the vehicle fishtailed on the wet road. The traumatic injuries Kris sustained in the crash left him paralyzed from the neck down and doctors told the man’s parents there was a high risk he would remain so permanently.

“I couldn’t drink, couldn’t feed myself, couldn’t text or pretty much do anything, I was basically just existing. I wasn’t living my life, I was existing,” Kris said as he recounted the bleak days following his traumatic injury.

Faced with this prospect, Kris agreed to take part in an experimental neuroregenerative procedure developed by scientists at the USC Neurorestoration Center and Keck Medicine of USC. The 21-year-old had a novel treatment injected into the damaged cervical spine consisting of escalating doses of AST-OPC1 cells.

AST-OPC1 cells are made from embryonic stem cells which are coaxed to morph into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) — the cells found in the brain and spinal cord that support and replenish functioning nerve cells. Previous studies carried in a lab setting showed that AST-OPC1 stimulates vascularization and induces regeneration of denuded axons. This promotes the survival, regrowth, and conduction of nerve impulses in the injury site, the researchers say.

Only two weeks after his surgery, Kris began to show signs of improvement. Now three months after the procedure, he can now use a cell phone, operate a motorized wheelchair by himself, or hug friends and family. He can feel both arms and hands, something that lends hope that he can at least live independently.

“Now I have grip strength and do things like open a bottle of soda and feed myself. Whereas before I was relying on my parents, now after the stem cell therapy I am able to live my life.”

kris therapy stem cell

Credit: USC

Kris is one of three patients who was enrolled in the clinical trial run by Asterias Biotherapeutics. Each patient was injected with two million cells into their necks, but Kris was the first patient to receive more than ten million stem cells in April.

“Typically, spinal cord injury patients undergo surgery that stabilizes the spine but generally does very little to restore motor or sensory function,” explains Charles Liu, MD, PhD, director of the USC Neurorestoration Center. “With this study, we are testing a procedure that may improve neurological function, which could mean the difference between being permanently paralyzed and being able to use one’s arms and hands. Restoring that level of function could significantly improve the daily lives of patients with severe spinal injuries.”

The surgery improved motor function up to two spinal cord levels, which for Kris now means he can brush his teeth without assistance or operate a computer. Things he wasn’t able to do on his own prior treatment.

Researchers are don’t want to jump to any conclusions, though. It’s not unheard of for some people with the same kind of injury as Kris to make a partial recovery. It’s impossible to say at this time if the marked improvement is due to the stem cell therapy, but we’ll know for sure once more patients enroll in the trial. Future versions of the clinical trial might also tell us if this procedure can be used to regain leg function as well — maybe by injecting more stem cells and in another location along the injured spinal chord. Most importantly, these trials are meant to assess the safety of such procedure.

Besides stem cells, researchers working to help the paralyzed regain bodily functions are experimenting with virtual reality training, flexible spinal chord implants, spinal chord zapping with electricity, and brain-computer interfaces.

For the first time in history, researchers restore voluntary finger movement for a paralyzed man

Using two sets of electrodes, scientists have successfully restored finger movement in a paralyzed patient for the first time in history. The results could be the starting point to developing methods that would allow people around the planet to regain limb mobility.

Four years ago, Ian Burkhart lost the ability to move his arms and legs. Now thanks to a neural implant and electrodes on his forearm, he's able to move his wrist, hand, and fingers. Image credits Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center/ Batelle

Four years ago, Ian Burkhart lost the ability to move his arms and legs. Now thanks to a neural implant and electrodes on his forearm, he’s able to move his wrist, hand, and fingers.
Image credits Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center/ Batelle

There are roughly 250,000 people living with severe spinal cord injuries in America alone — people who have to manage going through life with little or no mobility. One such man is 24 year old Ian Burkhart, who lost the ability to move or feel from the shoulder down in a diving accident four years ago. But, thanks to a team at Ohio State University, Ian became the first to regain control over his body. By using electrodes to bypass his damaged nerve pathways, the researchers allowed him to move his right fingers, hand and wrist.

“My immediate response was I want to do this,” said Ian after the four-hour procedure of inserting the electrodes into his brain . “If someone else was in my place, with the possibility of changing my life and people like me in future, I would hope they would agree.”

The first step was to implant an array of electrodes into Burkhart’s left primary motor cortex, an area of the brain that handles planing and directing movements. Signals generated in his brain were recorded and fed through a machine learning algorithm. It took almost 15 months of three training sessions each week to teach his brain to use the device. But finally, the software started to correctly interpret which brain waves corresponded to which movements.

Now, when Burkhart’s brain emits the proper signals, the implant sends these impulses through wires to a flexible sleeve — lined with electrodes — placed around his wrists to stimulate his muscles accordingly.

Image via giphy

The researchers tested Burkhart’s ability to perform six different hand, wrist and finger movements. An algorithm determined that Burkhart’s first movements were about 90 percent accurate on average.After his muscles got some exercise and improved their strength, Ian successfully poured water from a bottle into a jar and then stirred it. He was also able to swipe a credit card and even play some Guitar Hero.

The team notes that in its current form, the technique is highly invasive, meaning it might not be suitable for patients who are already in poor health or have compromised immune systems; They also point out that the device they used in this study allows for a greater range of movement than typically available neural bypass devices. Finally, the implant doesn’t restore a patient’s ability to feel — prosthetics might be able to solve that problem though.. Maybe someday the two technologies could merge to give patients both the ability to move and to feel.

Still, the study is a huge stepping stone. The way Burkhart was able to move his hand is simply mind blowing, and something considered impossible up to now. That could have big implications if the technology becomes used widely.

“Our goal was to use this technology so that these patients like Ian can be more in charge of their lives and can be more independent,” Ali Rezai, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a statement. “This really provides hope, we believe, for many patients in the future.”

The team hopes to have their system refined and ready for wide-scale implementation in a few years.

The full paper, titled “Restoring cortical control of functional movement in a human with quadriplegia” has been published in the journal Nature and can be read here.

Most of the 100 children hospitalized with acute flaccid myelitis haven't recovered from paralysis and weak limbs. CC BY-NC 2.0

Over 100 child paralysis cases linked to new Enterovirus strain

Since August, 115 children in 34 states have developed limb paralysis (leg or arm) the cause of which is still largely a mystery. Now, doctors believe a new strain of a common respiratory virus may be responsible for the sudden lapses.

Most of the 100 children hospitalized with acute flaccid myelitis haven't recovered from paralysis and weak limbs.CC BY-NC 2.0

Most of the 100 children hospitalized with acute flaccid myelitis haven’t recovered from paralysis and weak limbs. CC BY-NC 2.0

After the first cases were reported, some researchers and doctors claimed the acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), as the sudden paralysis is called, may be due to  an enterovirus called EV-D68 since at the time U.S. emergency rooms experienced an unprecedented wave of children coming in with severe EV-D68. The paralyzed children, however, didn’t have any traces of the virus in their spinal chord fluid – where doctors expected to find evidence of B1, the name of the new virus strain. The fact that  enteroviruses are so common doesn’t help at all in pinpointing the root of AFM.

Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) believe however that they have found significant evidence linking B1 to AFM. The doctors drew nasal samples from 25 children and found 12 of them tested positive for the B1 strain. The scientists then genetically sequenced the virus and found it shared certain mutations that resemble those found in the poliovirus genome. Using a technique called molecular clock analysis, the team determined the strain must have mutated four and half years ago – around the time the first cases were also reported.  Only one child had the virus in his blood also, after doctors at the  Children’s Hospital Los Angeles carried out the tests. This is significant because poliovirus also enters the bloodstream before invading the central nervous system.

“We were fortunate to detect it,” said  Dr. Charles Chiu, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of laboratory medicine at University of California, San Francisco., adding that usually, “we are diagnosing these cases after the fact, when the sample you want is one taken when they start developing symptoms.”

Since the child was tested much earlier than other children who typically came in the hospital after symptoms were already fully developed, the researchers believe this is why they haven’t been able to find the virus in other blood samples. What’s interesting is that children infected with the new strain will not all develop paralysis. One case of note involves a pair of siblings, a boy and girl who both contracted the virus.  The girl suffered paralysis in both arms and her trunk, but her brother experienced no lasting effects. This suggests that genetics have a major role to play. Next, the doctors plan on isolating cell cultures from each sibling and infecting them with the EV-D68 new strain to see what happens.

Findings were reported in the Lancet Infectious Diseases.

Footage of a paralyzed rat using his hind legs, which normally should have been completely numb. This from experiments performed last year, so this is an old implant - not the newly developed e-Dura. Image: CNET

Paralyzed rats regain use of hind legs with flexible spinal cord implant. Humans to follow

Footage of a paralyzed rat using his hind legs, which normally should have been completely numb. This from experiments performed last year, so this is an old implant - not the newly developed e-Dura. Image: CNET

Footage of a paralyzed rat using his hind legs, which normally should have been completely numb. This from experiments performed last year, so this is an old implant – not the newly developed e-Dura. Image: CNET

Swiss scientists demonstrated a flexible ribbon-like implant that attaches itself to a paralyzed rat’s spinal cord, allowing the animal to walk again. The prosthetic, described by foremost experts in the field as ‘remarkable’, works by delivering timed electrical impulses and drugs along the spinal cord. In this particular case, rats aren’t that different from humans, and true enough clinical trials are now one step closer. In the future, paralysis might just be another word for “walking funny.”

A breakthrough in medicine

The technology was first introduced by researchers at the Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne, Switzerland last year, when it was shown how a rat with a severed spinal cord could walk again after a system of electrical impulses and chemical reactions was introduced.  The brain moves the body by sending electrical signals down the spinal cord and into the nervous system. When the spinal cord is severed, the signals can no longer reach that part of the spine, paralyzing that part of the body. The idea is to direct electrical impulses below the cut, where signal from the brain discontinued. This is done via electrodes that take the place of the brain signal, along with neurotransmitting drugs to reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue. If you find this amazing, you’re not alone. Paralysis might become a thing of the past in just a few decades.

This is how the flexible e-Dura implant looks like. The implant is so effective because it mimics the soft tissue around the spine so that the body does not reject its presence. Image: EPFL

This is how the flexible e-Dura implant looks like. The implant is so effective because it mimics the soft tissue around the spine so that the body does not reject its presence. Image: EPFL

In practical terms, however, a surface implant on a human’s spinal cord is extremely tricky. Because it’s rigid, the constant friction causes local inflammation, damaging the surrounding area. The latest updates features a flexible implant specifically designed to integrate with the patient’s spine, minimizing the risk of rejection and further damage. Called E-Dura, the implant mimics the soft tissue around the spine – known as the dura mater – reducing the risk of inflammation, friction and abrasion.

[RELATED] Paralyzed rats regain control of their bladder

“Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or cortex,” said Professor Stéphanie Lacour.

“This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed following spinal cord injury.”

After implanting e-Dura in rats, researchers found there was no sign of damage or rejection following two months of observation. It goes without saying the the rats could walk once the implant was set.

e-dura2

The implant is made of silicon and covered with gold electric conducting tracks that can be pulled and stretched along with the silicon material. The electrodes, a new composite made of silicon and platinum microbeads, can be pulled in any direction. The two components act together and direct electrical signals to the spinal cord in the same manner as the brain would. Meanwhile, tiny microfluid channel embedded in the implant deliver neurotransmitter drugs.

“Soft flexible nerves connected to unyielding silicon and metal – the combination has spawned many a Hollywood cyborg,” wrote science writer Robert Service in Science.

“The implants Lacour’s team created still have to be wired to the out- side world to operate, but she and her colleagues are designing wireless versions of the technology. Watch out, Hollywood, reality is catching up.”

It’s heartwarming to hear that this isn’t the only effort that seeks to abolish paralysis. There are many projects worldwide hard at work developing the next generation of implants and drugs that will make paralysis a thing of history. For instance, another group at Cambridge University has restored movement in the hind legs of 23 dogs after they transplanted nerve cells from the animals’ noses.

The human trials may start as early as June of this year, at a special facility called the called the Gait Platform, housed in the University Hospital of Lausanne, Switzerland. The e-Dura implant was described in a paper published in Science.

Paralyzed rats regain control of their bladder

It may surprise you to know that a life-threatening disability after complete spinal cord injury is urinary dysfunction – although numerous strategies and treatments have been tried, in the attempt of regrowing the severed axons, their success has been very limited. Now, researchers have finally come up with a solution that works, at least in rats.

Paralyzed rodents can now decide by themselves when they need to take a leak – instead of dribbling out urine, they squeeze out shots of pee almost like healthy rats. The benefits this could bring to paralyzed people are huge.

“This is a very big deal,” says neurologist John McDonald of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md. If the treatment works in people with spinal cord injuries, he says, “it would change their lives.”

The thing is, unlike paralyzed rats, paralyzed humans can’t leak urine to relieve a full bladder. They have to be fitted with a catheter, or else their urine leaks back into their kidneys.

bladderJerry Silver, a neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and his team spent years refining a technique to tear down scar tissue and encourage damaged nerve cells to grow, finally being able to help the rats regain control over their bladder.

Over several months, the damaged nerves slowly regenerated. They inched down through the grafted nerves, and then, says Silver, “they kept going and going like little Energizer bunnies.” After six months, the rats mostly regained control over their bladder, and even started to wiggle their legs a bit – which was pleasant surprise.

“This is one of the most important steps that I have seen in recent years,” says neuroscientist Lars Olson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Scientific article

Neural interface implanted in a monkey (credit: David A Borton et al./J. Neural Eng.)

Wireless brain-interface boasts promising start

Neural interface implanted in a monkey (credit: David A Borton et al./J. Neural Eng.)

Neural interface implanted in a monkey (credit: David A Borton et al./J. Neural Eng.)

We’ve showed you some incredible brain-computer interface scientific advances in the past few weeks alone, be it the merged rat brain organic computer or flexible electronic “tattoo” that might enable functioning telepathy, and the field is only growing. We couldn’t be more happy, you can imagine, since the potential medical uses alone for this kind of technology are simply staggering. There are numerous unfortunate people all around the world with some form of paralysis or another or missing limbs, and a mechanical extension controlled by their very own thoughts is the best chance they currently have at living a normal life.

Luckily, brain-computer interface technology is growing furiously and a recent paper published by researchers at Brown University, which discuss their trials and findings after implanting a wirelessly rechargeable brain-computer interface device in animals adds even further weight. The implanted devices have been working for the past 12 months – a first in the brain-computer interface field.

Previously, brain-computer interfaces have been successful only with wired systems, aiding people with severe paralysis move devices like robotic arms or computer cursors by thinking about moving their arms and hands.

“This was conceived very much in concert with the larger BrainGate team, including neurosurgeons and neurologists giving us advice as to what were appropriate strategies for eventual clinical applications,” said Nurmikko, who is also affiliated with the Brown Institute for Brain Science.

Their device is  55 mm-long, and 9 mm thick – not quite negligible considering it needs to be implanted under the scalp – a consists of sophisticated electrical connections and a pill-sized chip, implanted in the cortex, which relays back important neural activity. In this “tin can”, a sophisticated array of electronics are housed, from lithium-ion batteries, to infrared transmitters, to signal processors, to wireless radio transmitters.

“What makes the achievement discussed in this paper unique is that it’s the first fully implanted neural interface microsystem operated wirelessly; and how it integrated many individual innovations into a complete system,” said lead author David Borton, a former Brown graduate student and postdoctoral research associate who is now at Ecole Polytechnique Federale Lausanne in Switzerland..

“It has operated more than 12 months in large animal models — a milestone for potential [human] clinical translation.”

After a two-hour charge, delivered wirelessly through the scalp via magnetic induction, it can operate for more than six hours.

“The device uses less than 100 milliwatts of power, a key figure of merit,” Nurmikko said.

Exploded view of neural interface (credit: David A Borton et al./J. Neural Eng.)

Exploded view of neural interface (credit: David A Borton et al./J. Neural Eng.)

Wireless brain-computer implants will finally allow people leave the house

The device have so far been implanted in the brains of six animals – three pigs and three rhesus macaque monkeys. So far, a slew of complex neural activity has been analyzed, data which is currently used in order to adapt the device for human us. Also, since the brian-computer interface solution is wireless, it can be used to monitor subject brain activity for various research purposes outside a lab. A lot of neural activity related to running or foraging for instance is almost impossible currently to assess without a wireless interface system.

In the experiments in the new paper, the device is connected to one array of 100 cortical electrodes, but the new device design allows for multiple arrays to be connected, Nurmikko said. That would allow scientists to observe ensembles of neurons in multiple related areas of a brain network.

Currently, the Brown researchers are working on an updated version that has even better data transmission (the current device ransmits data at 24 Mbps via 3.2 and 3.8 Ghz microwave frequencies), a reduced size and less health-related risks such that it may be soon considered for clinical trials.

Findings were reported in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

Jasper the dog

Paralyzed dogs can walk again after nose cell transplant

In a remarkable medical feat, physicians at Cambridge University have restored movement in the hind legs of 23 dogs after they transplanted nerve cells from the animals’ noses. The results suggest that the procedure might hold similar promising prospects for humans suffering from spinal cord injuries.

The researchers used 34 pet dogs for their experimental procedure, of which 23 had an actual cell transplant, while the rest were injected with a neutral fluid in order to act as a control group.

This is Elemer, a 9 year old Border Collie, who used to need a cart to move about. After surgery, the collie can now move on his own legs. (c) Cambridge University

This is Elemer, a 9 year old Border Collie, who used to need a cart to move about. After surgery, the collie can now move on his own legs. (c) Cambridge University

The cells in question are called olfactory ensheathing cells, and they surround olfactory neurons that allow us to smell. The reason the researchers decided to use these cells is because they’re the only nerve cells in the body that continue to regenerate even through adulthood. As such, they’ve been studied with great interest by specialists in the past years.

After collecting the ensheathing cells from the inner lining of the nose, the scientists then multiplied and refined them in the lab. The batch was then directly injected in the injured part of the body. Soon after, the researchers observed significant improvement in the dogs’ ability to move their back legs, which up until then were completely paralyzed. Many of the pets had to be wheeled around in order to move before the operation.

Using nose cells to restore leg movement

All 23 pets that received the transplant showed considerable improvement and were able to walk on a treadmill with the support of a harness. None of the dogs from the control group which had a neutral fluid injected saw any improvement. Worth noting is that this is the first time ensheathing cells have been used in animals with real-life injuries.

“Our findings are extremely exciting because they show for the first time that transplanting these types of cell into a severely damaged spinal cord can bring about significant improvement.”

“We’re confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries but that’s a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function,” said Professor Robin Franklin, a regeneration biologist at the Wellcome Trust-MRC Stem Cell Institute and report co-author.

After the cells are transplanted in the injury site, they begin to regenerate nerve fibres across the damaged region of the spinal cord. This allows the dogs to slowly, but surely regain the ability of their motor cortices to communicate with their back legs.

Humans, don’t get overly excited – we’re still a long way!

Jasper the dog

As a great shortcoming, the new nerve connections did not occur over the long distances required to connect the brain to the spinal cord. While a similar procedure on paralyzed humans would allow for a significant improvement in movement, it won’t however restore  sexual function and bowel and bladder control.

“This is not a cure for spinal cord injury in humans – that could still be a long way off. But this is the most encouraging advance for some years and is a significant step on the road towards it,” said Prof Geoffrey Raisman, chair of Neural Regeneration at University College London, who discovered olfactory ensheathing cells in 1985.

“This procedure has enabled an injured dog to step with its hind legs, but the much harder range of higher functions lost in spinal cord injury – hand function, bladder function, temperature regulation, for example – are yet more complicated and still a long way away.”

The scientists advise people not too get overly excited over these findings and wait for more trial findings.

“We’re confident that the technique might be able to restore at least a small amount of movement in human patients with spinal cord injuries, but that’s a long way from saying they might be able to regain all lost function,” Frankly said in a statement. “It’s more likely that this procedure might one day be used as part of a combination of treatments, alongside drug and physical therapies,” he continued.

For pet owners, however, like those of Jasper, a 10-year-old dachshund, who could walk again on his own feet after the treatment, even these “small” steps mean the world to them.

“Before the treatment we used to have to wheel Jasper round on a trolley because his back legs were useless. Now he whizzes around the house and garden and is able to keep up with the other dogs. It’s wonderful,” said Jasper’s owner May Hay for BBC.

Findings were published in the journal Brain. Check out the video below, which features Jasper’s extraordinary transformations from being wheeled around to walking on a treadmill.