Eight people who had been left paralyzed below the waist as a result of spinal cord injuries have managed to regain some of the feeling and muscle control in their legs, after taking part in a year-long virtual reality training program. All patients had been paraplegic for between 3 and 13 years, yet after 12 months of training, all eight experienced improvements in somatic sensation, resulting in half of them having their diagnosings upgraded from complete to partial paralysis.
These unbelievable results were achieved thanks to a revolutionary new therapy program, been developed by researchers at Duke University and described in a newspaper published this week in the journal Scientific Reports. To begin with, patients learned to control a virtual reality avatar using only their brainwaves. According to survey co-author Miguel Nicolelis, this reinserted the representation of lower limbs into the patients brains.
Once participants had mastered this exercise, they began a new stage of physical train, utilizing harnesses and brainwave-controlled exoskeletons to provide balance and subsistence while they attempted to move their legs.
Though the level of success varied from patient to patient, the researchers write that all eight regained voluntary motor control in key muscles resulting in marked improvement in their stroll index. They also experienced improvements in their ability to feel ache in their legs, as well as regaining a degree of bladder and bowel control. This is significant as it means they may become less reliant on laxatives and catheters, which are often the source of potentially life-threatening infections for paralyzed people.
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Among the biggest improvers was a woman who, while been endorsed by a harness, was able to voluntarily move her legs for the first time in over a decade.
Though it is not yet clear exactly how this effect is attained, Nicolelis believes that the training program enables patients to reconnect their brains to the few spinal nerves that survived the accidents that left them paralyzed in the first place. One previous analyze has shown that a large percentage of patients who are diagnosed as having complete paraplegia may still have some spinal nerves left intact, he explained in a statement.
These nerves may go quiet for many years because there is no signal from the cortex to the muscles. Over time, training with the brain-machine interface could have rekindled these nerves. It may be a small number of fibers that remain, but this may be enough to convey signals from the motor cortical region of the brain to the spinal cord.