Several people who have been paralyzed for years were able to regain some movement using a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton, according to a new study. The study, led by a Duke University neuroscientist and published Thursday in Scientific Reports, found that eight patients who were paralyzed from spinal cord injuries regained partial sensation and muscle control in their lower limbs after learning how to use brain-controlled robotics. One of those patients was a 32-year-old woman who had been paralyzed for 13 years. When she joined the study, she was not able to stand, even with the help of braces.
After 13 months of training, she was able to move her legs voluntarily while a harness supported her body weight. Her remarkable progress was captured in one of several videos released by Duke researchers.
“We never expected to see clinical recovery… we were very shocked,” lead researcher Dr. Miguel Nicolelis told CTV News.
The study was part of the Walk Again Project launched in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The project made headlines in 2014, when a paralyzed teenager in a robotic suit walked onto the soccer pitch during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Brazil and kicked a ball. In the Duke study, patients were trained to use brain-machine interfaces with robotic exoskeletons that included a virtual reality system. Participants used their own brain activity to simulate full control of their legs.
After just seven months of training, a number of patients started to see changes. After a year, four patients had made such significant progress that doctors upgraded their diagnoses from complete to partial paralysis, according to the study. Most patients also saw improvements in their bladder control and bowel function, reducing their reliance on laxatives and catheters, Nicolelis said in a news release.
“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 behavior, tactile sensations and visceral functions below the level of the spinal cord injury,” he said. “Until now, nobody has seen recovery of these functions in a patient so many years after being diagnosed with complete paralysis.” Nicolelis said that nearly all the patients who took part in the study have continued with their rehabilitation and training. He and his colleagues plan to publish more data about the participants’ continued progress, as well as create a new trial with patients who’ve had more recent spinal cord injuries.
Nicolelis told CTV News that he and his team have reached out to rehab centres in the U.S. and Europe and would like to share their software and technology to help others. There are other therapies that may have similar effects, with scientists in Toronto also combining several approaches, using electric stimulation and patient involvement in rehabilitation to boost recovery.
Milos Popovic, a senior scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, told CTV News that atechnology called MyndMove is already in use for upper body rehabilitation in parts of Canada.
“We have seen dramatic improvement in stroke and spinal cord patients,” Popovic said.
The study from Duke University is another sign of promise – but it is also preliminary, experts caution.
“Is this something that is ready for clinical use tomorrow? Absolutely not,” Popovic said.