Most of medical science has tried to heal those with spinal cord injuries by finding a way to reconnect severed nerves and regrow damaged nerve tissue. Technology now offers a way to work around damaged nerves instead of repairing them. Functional Electrical Stimulation (“FES”) systems have been around since the 1980s, but scientists are now learning how to better accommodate them to the lives of their injured patients. Soon, more patients will be able to control external devices, like computers, with their thoughts.
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, the key to FES systems lies in electrical stimulators that send pulses to muscles in the body, much as nerves do naturally. Electrodes taped to the skin can send signals that control muscle movements. When placed in the correct locations, they can even help a person regain the ability to walk. The current systems create jerky movements that are often awkward and uncomfortable for patients. Bioengineers hope to change that by creating natural interfaces that are easier for patients to control.
BrainGate Opens Human-Computer Interaction
The brain maps out a plan seconds before it sends a signal to move a body part. When a spinal cord is damaged or severed, the movement signal travels down to the damaged part of the spine, but has no way to reach the muscle. Scientists want to redirect those messages and send them directly to muscles, robotic arms and even computers.
BrainGate, a company developing these technologies with researchers at Brown University, successfully proved that FES brain implants can work for humans. A University press release announced that in March of this year, a female quadriplegic patient who suffered brain injury from a stroke used the device successfully for 1,000 days. She can control a computer cursor and screen mouse using only her thoughts. This milestone was a victory. Other devices had failed in the past because of moisture from the internal environment.
According to Dr. Leigh Hochberg, director of earlier BrainGate clinical trials at Massachusetts General Hospital, “This proof of concept — that after 1,000 days a woman who has no functional use of her limbs and is unable to speak can reliably control a cursor on a computer screen using only the intended movement of her hand — is an important step for the field.”
Restoring Movement… and Hope
Not only does the implant last over time, but it also works very well. A quadriplegic patient can perform “point-and-click” actions on icons as small as a Microsoft Word menu icon at 90 percent or better accuracy. In the long term, BrainGate hopes to make it as easy for a patient as it is for a non-injured person to move and click a mouse.
If you or a loved one suffered a spinal cord injury, contact our office for a free consultation. Act quickly, because the law imposes time limits for filing suit. Our expert attorneys will discuss your case and help you decide if a lawsuit is the right course of action.