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Tapping into spinal cord intelligence could help paralyzed patients walk again

An electrical implant along with advances in mapping the spinal cord at the University of Alberta could soon help those with spinal injuries walk again.

'We're at the edge of merging the human and the machine,' says U of A researcher

Bioengineer Vivian Mushahwar holds a hair-like wire that would be used to stimulate control centres in the spinal cord for standing and walking in spinal cord-injury patients. (Submitted by University of Alberta)

An electrical implant along with advances in mapping the spinal cord at the University of Alberta could soon help those with spinal injuries walk again.

"Imagine the future," says bioengineer Vivian Mushahwar in a news release Monday. "A person just thinks and commands are transmitted to the spinal cord. People stand up and walk. This is the dream." 

People tend to think the brain does all the thinking, Mushahwar said in the release, but the spinal cord has built-in intelligence. 

Mushahwar's work focuses on a tiny stimulator implanted into the spinal cord, which uses fine, hair-like wires to trigger the control centre for standing and walking. 

A complex chain of motor and sensory networks regulate everything from breathing to bowels, while the brain stem's contribution is basically to control the commands around going, stopping and speed, she said.

Similar to implant used on injured Bronco

"Multiple labs have been looking at where those local motor networks are," Mushahwar said. "The thing that is unique about us is that we mapped them electrically and no one else has done that."

In a paper published in the online science journal, Scientific Reports, Mushahwar's team showcased a map identifying which parts of the spinal cord trigger the hip, knees, ankles and toes, as well as the areas that put movements together.

The spinal maps have been remarkably consistent across the animal spectrum and Mushahwar believes the research could be used on humans within the next decade. 

The implant is a more sophisticated version of the implant used to help Humboldt hockey player Ryan Straschnitzki. 

Whereas Straschnitzki's implant is placed outside his spinal cord, the implant used by Mushahwar's team would be inside the spinal cord.

Repairing an injured spinal cord is not simply a matter of reconnecting a cable, she said. Instead, it requires three Herculean feats: translating brain signals, figuring out and controlling the spinal cord and getting the two sides talking again.

"There's been an explosion of knowledge in neuroscience over the last 20 years," Mushahwar said. "We're at the edge of merging the human and the machine."

Being able to control standing and walking would improve bone health, improve bowel and bladder function, and reduce pressure ulcers, she said. 

It would also help treat cardiovascular disease — the main cause of death for spinal cord patients — while bolstering mental health and quality of life.

"We think that intraspinal stimulation itself will get people to start walking longer and longer — and maybe even faster," said Mushahwar. "That, in itself, becomes their therapy."

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