Scientists in Australia have developed a ‘bionic spine’. This device has successfully been tested in sheep and will be implanted in three patients next year. If it works, it will allow paralysed patients to regain movement using subconscious thought.
Traditionally, devices to directly stimulate the brain require invasive surgery, as for example in the deep brain stimulation treatment of Parkinson’s disease developed using non-human primate research. But in this study, researchers successfully inserted the bionic spine in sheep by inserting it in the neck and then guiding it through blood vessels. Because of this blood vessel delivery method, the researchers chose to test the device in sheep, as they have similar brain vasculature to humans.
Once the device reached the motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for movement, it started recording the signals this area emits. The scientists compared the recordings from the device with signals from electrodes directly implanted in the brain. The device successfully recorded motor signals in freely moving sheep for up to 190 days, and the signals matched up.
The sheep in this study had intact spinal cords, so while it shows that the device works, the next step is to make sure the motor signals are translated into the correct movements. Next year, three patients at a hospital in Victoria, Australia, will get implanted with the ‘bionic spine’ device. Another device will be installed in their shoulder which will translate the signals into commands for bionic limbs.
This sheep study is a promising development in the field of spinal cord injury research, which has previously enabled a paralysed man to kick a football in the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup. Animal research has played and continues to play an important role in this field.