Scientists prepare way for bionic man

Researchers aim within five years to restore natural arm and leg movements to people who are completely paralysed, using the power of neurotechnology, the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Francisco heard on Friday.

John Donoghue of Brown University and Hunter Peckham of Case Western Reserve University, neurotechnology pioneers, are to collaborate on the project with funding from the US National Institutes of Health.

The goal is to give quadriplegic patients an electronic brain implant, linked to an electrical system of muscle stimulation, enabling them to move their limbs by thought alone – just like healthy people. “This system will represent a quantum leap in rehabilitation technology,” said Prof Donoghue, “and it will fundamentally alter the lives of people with spinal cord injury.”

Prof Donoghue’s lab has developed the world’s most advanced brain-computer interface, called BrainGate. This neural implant, a silicon chip with 100 ultra-fine electrodes, sits on top of the brain and relays thought patterns to a computer, which then carries out the appropriate actions. The experimental system has already enabled paralysed patients to operate a cursor on a computer screen, control a wheelchair and operate a robotic hand.

Meanwhile Prof Peckham has developed a Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) system. This enables people who are largely but not completely paralysed to move their limbs, by activating muscles that would otherwise be immobilised through spinal injury. Patients have electrodes implanted in their back and legs – but not their brain, so they must have enough residual movement to operate switches.

Jennifer French, a young quadriplegic from Florida whose spinal cord was severed in a snowboarding accident, demonstrated how the FES enabled her to get out of her wheelchair and walk – though in a very jerky way. “My first stand was a wonderful moment,” she said. “I could hug my husband and my parents properly.”

The joint project will combine BrainGate’s ability to communicate neural signals to a computer with the FES’s ability to activate previously paralysed muscles. “Imagine a world where the bionic man is not just a TV show,” said Ms French.

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