Eight people who have spent years paralysed from spinal cord injuries have regained partial sensation and muscle control in their lower limbs after training with brain-controlled robotics, including a virtual reality system.
Over 12 months the patients used a brain-controlled exoskeleton, virtual-reality environments and training on non-invasive brain controlled virtual avatar bodies, with all showing improvement — and one woman able to move her legs voluntarily for the first time in 13 years.
Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs) have emerged as potential options to restore mobility in patients who are severely paralyzed as a result of SCIs or neurodegenerative disorders. However, to date no study has suggested that long-term training associating BMI-based paradigms and physical training could trigger neurological recovery.
Using a multi-stage neuro-rehabilitation protocol, Miguel Nicolelis and colleagues investigated the impact training could have on the ability to walk autonomously using a brain-controlled exoskeleton in eight participants with SCIs (seven of which were diagnosed with total paralysis below the level of the SCI). The protocol included using a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton, virtual-reality environments and training on non-invasive brain controlled virtual avatar bodies with visual and tactile feedback.
All participants in the study experienced improvements in sensations (including pain localisation and fine/crude touch) and voluntary muscle control below the level of the spinal cord lesion, suggesting that long-term training can induce partial neurological recovery below the level of a spinal cord injury in paraplegics.