Study reveals brain-spine technology that enables walking


Nairobi County Woman Rep Esther Passaris shares a word of advice with Joyline Asto Ingola at Spinal Injury Hospital in Nairobi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Spinal cord injury is a devastating condition that affects millions of people globally. Individuals with spinal cord injury often rely on wheelchairs or other assistive devices to navigate and perform daily tasks. However, a new study published in Nature reveals that an innovative device called a brain-spine interface (BSI) can reinstate natural walking in a person with chronic tetraplegia, the result of severe spinal cord injury.

The BSI comprises of electrodes implanted on the brain and spinal cord that communicate wirelessly. The BSI deciphers the brain signals pertaining to walking intention and converts them into electrical simulation of the spinal cord. The simulation engenders walking movements in the legs.

The study featured a participant who had suffered a devastating spinal cord injury at the neck level about a decade ago. He had lost all voluntary control over his legs. He endured intensive neurorehabilitation for 18 months before receiving the BSI implantation. The implantation was carried out by a team of skilled neurosurgeons, engineers and scientists at the prestigious Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

The researchers swiftly adjusted the BSI within a few minutes by asking the participant to envisage walking while recording his brain signals and applying different simulation patterns to his spinal cord. The BSI smartly learned to anticipate the optimal simulation parameters from the brain signals using a sophisticated machine learning algorithm. 

The researchers assessed the performance of the BSI in various tasks such as standing, walking on a treadmill, walking overground, ascending stairs and traversing complex terrains. The participant noted that he could control his legs naturally and intuitively with BSI. He could effortlessly initiate, stop, accelerate, decelerate, change direction and adjust his step length and height with minimal effort. He could also walk with different speeds.

This study is a major breakthrough in the field of neuro-prosthetics and inspires hope for people with spinal cord injury who seek to recover their mobility and independence.