Patients with paralysis might soon be able to walk again by combining the power of thought and exoskeleton technology, following the creation of a new machine interface that can be surgically implanted within the human brain in around two hours.
The new brain computer interface, which hails from Melbourne, consists of a stent-based electrode (stentrode) that translates brain signals into bodily movement.
The size of a small paperclip, the stentrode can be surgically implanted within a blood vessel in the brain of a person with paralysis, without open brain surgery.
Head of Medicine at the Departments of Medicine and Neurology at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and University of Melbourne, Professor Terry O’Brien, believes the stentrode is ground-breaking.
“The exoskeletons that exist now are a bit like Iron Man in that they go on the outside of the limbs and enable someone who is paralysed to move,” says Prof O’Brien.
To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time, without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine.
“But up until now you’ve had to inform the exoskeleton in some way, manually, that you want to move for it to do so.
“[Our] device provides the means by which long-term brain implants are able to power bionic technology and exoskeletons.”
A study, published today in Nature Biotechnology, shows that the implanted interface works by recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain’s motor cortex.
The signals can then be used to move limbs through an exoskeleton or control bionic limbs. In other words, the device enables a person with paralysis to control their mobility with their mind.
“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time, without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine."
The stentrode was developed by medical researchers from The Royal Melbourne Hospital, The University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.
The innovation has the potential to treat more than 10,000 people who currently live with spinal cord injuries throughout Australia.
Stroke is also major cause of paralysis, and is the third most common cause of death nationwide, according to the Brain Foundation.
The device can also be potentially used in people with a range of diseases aside from spinal cord injury, including epilepsy, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.
This device uses stent technology but using a much a less invasive procedure.
Prof O’Brien explains that although the stent technology is not new, the minimally invasive device is a world first.
“The problem with [devices implanted via open brain surgery] is that, within a few months, the brain starts to reject a transplant. The signal quality of the device also deteriorates and it is no longer usable for that purpose.
“This device uses stent technology but using a much a less invasive procedure.
“The implant does not deteriorate over time as it is protected by the surrounding blood vessel.”
Co-principal investigator and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, Dr Nicholas Opie, explains the concept behind the stentrode is similar to an implantable cardiac pacemaker in that it uses electrical interaction with tissue.
“Our electrode array self-expands to stick to the inside wall of a vein, enabling us to record local brain activity,” says Dr Opie.
“By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers.”
By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers.
To-date, research on the stentrode has only been conducted on sheep. The first in-human trial of the device will take place at The Royal Melbourne Hospital next year.
The research team hope to initially achieve direct brain control of an exoskeleton for three people with paralysis.
Participants will be selected from the Austin Health Victorian Spinal Cord Unit.
“What the cochlear implant has done for hearing, we are doing for mobility disorders,” says Dr Opie.
“What we’ve done is just demonstrated that there is a new, novel safe technique to access the brain and what becomes of that in future can be expanded on quite a lot.
“The sky is the limit in terms of the application this [innovation] can be used for.”