New Technology Helps Paraplegics Regain Partial Control Of Limbs

Aug 12, 2016

Eight paraplegic patients have regained partial control of their lower limbs, according to a recent rehabilitation study led by a Duke University neuroscientist.

These eight patients have been living with paralyzing spinal cord injuries for years. Now, researchers say they're making impressive breakthroughs with the help of a brain-machine interface, including a virtual reality system.

Duke Neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis is leading the project. He discussed his work in a video created at his lab in São Paulo.

"Even though clinically, all these patients were diagnosed as being complete paraplegics, perhaps from an anatomical point of view, the original lesion didn't destroy all fibers of the spinal cord," Nicolelis said. "So some may have survived and went quiet for many years."

Nicolelis said the virtual reality program he and his team have developed allows patients to imagine full control of their limbs. The simulation has been successful in these patients — it essentially wakes up dormant spinal cord nerves.

"These patients may have been able to transmit some of this information from the cortex through the spinal cord through these very few nerves that may have survived the regional trauma," Nicolelis said. "It's almost like we turned them on again."

Virtual reality training is only part of the regimen in Nicolelis' lab. Patients also participate in exercises that enlist robotics, such as the Lokomat, a robotic gait trainer.

The technology still needs further research and trials before it's implemented in rehab centers for the broader public. Many of the current patients in the study will continue rehabilitation.