Brain machine helps paraplegic patients regain movement

FORT COLLINS, Colo., Aug. 11 (UPI) — Paraplegic patients who used a brain-machine interface regained movement, from organ control to using their arms or legs, after extended periods of training with the system, according to researchers.

The Walk Again Project reports patients with significant spinal cord injuries expected to never recover used the brain-machine interface and experienced significant recovery of neurological function, according to a clinical report published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Recent studies have suggested nerve stimulation combined with exoskeleton technology can help restore some function to spinal cord injury patients, but the WAP concept focuses on retraining how the brain functions.

In the new project, eight patients all regained some sort of function and motor control after 12 months of training with the system, which combines virtual reality, a treadmill and a brain-controlled motorized exoskeleton.

“Currently, once people with spinal injuries receive a diagnosis of complete paralysis, rehabilitation consists mainly of adapting them to a wheelchair,” Miguel Nicolelis, director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University, said in a press release. “We believe that our results with this long-term, sustained brain-machine interface training can be not only critical itself in triggering recovery in our patients, but it can also serve as an important motivator for spinal cord patients worldwide.”

Researchers started each of the eight patients with an Oculus Rift virtual reality system, asking them to imagine movements of their own bodies in order to make an on-screen avatar walk. While doing so, the patients received tactile feedback through a vibrating shirt, such as every time the avatar’s feet touched the ground.

Patients were then taught to use a Lokomat — a robotic orthosis on a treadmill enabling them to make walking motions while suspended by a harness — using the same EEG cap they’d used to control the avatar. This same process was then repeated using a brain-controlled exoskeleton, with which they could move their legs.

The researchers report the long-term training and tactile nature of the training appeared to help with the reorganization of the brain, allowing the skills to slowly return.

“We believe that our results with this long-term, sustained brain-machine interface training can be not only critical itself in triggering recovery in our patients, but it can also serve as an important motivator for spinal cord patients worldwide,” Nicolelis said.

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