Brain-machine interface triggers recovery for people with paraplegia

During the 2014 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, a young Brazilian man, paralyzed from the chest down, delivered the opening kick-off. He used a brain-machine interface, allowing him to control the movements of a lower-limb robotic exoskeleton.

This unprecedented scientific demonstration was the work of the Walk Again Project, a non-profit, international research consortium that includes Alan Rudolph, vice president for research at Colorado State University, who is also an adjunct faculty member at Duke University’s Center for Neuroengineering.

Barely two years after the demonstration, the WAP has released its first clinical report. They report that a group of patients who trained throughout 2014 with the WAP’s brain-controlled system, including a motorized exoskeleton, have regained the ability to voluntarily move their leg muscles and to feel touch and pain in their paralyzed limbs. This, despite being originally diagnosed as having a clinically complete spinal cord injury – in some cases more than a decade earlier.

The patients also regained degrees of bladder and bowel control, and improved cardiovascular function, which in one case resulted in a reduction in hypertension.

This is the first study to report that long-term brain-machine interface use could lead to significant recovery of neurological function in patients suffering from severe spinal cord injuries.

The WAP researchers theorize that the long-term training regimen likely promoted brain reorganization and activated dormant nerves that may have survived the original spinal injury from 3-14 years earlier.

The researchers are led by neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, director of the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering and president of the Alberto Santos Dumont Association for Research Support. They say they do not yet know the limits of this clinical recovery, since patients have continued to improve since the World Cup demo. However, they believe their initial findings could influence future clinical practices for patients with paraplegia by upgrading brain-machine interfaces from a simple assistive technology to a potential new therapy for spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

Colorado State University