WASHINGTON Possibly in just a decade, implantable devices that promote brain plasticity and reanimate paralysed limbs could be available to provide a new lease of life to people who have suffered a spinal cord injury or stroke.
University of Washington's Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering has been granted renewed funding of $16 million for the next four years by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to help US based researchers to develop implantable devices that can send signals between regions of the brain or nervous system that have been disconnected due to injury.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, San Diego State University and other partners are part of the efforts to support development of this much-needed technology.
"There's a huge unmet need, especially with an aging population of baby boomers, for developing the next generation of medical devices for helping people with progressive or traumatic neurological conditions such as stroke and spinal cord injury," said CSNE director and UW professor of computer science and engineering Rajesh Rao in a statement.
The goal is to achieve proof-of-concept demonstrations in humans within the next five years, Rao said. CSNE was founded in 2011 with an $18.5 million NSF grant to lead the research in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of neuroscientists, engineers, computer scientists, neurosurgeons, ethicists and industry partners.
"When Christopher Reeve sustained a spinal cord injury due to a fall from his horse, his brain circuits were still intact and able to form the intention to move, but unfortunately the injury prevented that intention from being conveyed to the spinal cord," Rao said.
"Our implantable devices aim to bridge such lost connections by decoding brain signals and stimulating the appropriate part of the spinal cord to enable the person to move again," he said.
The same technology could also be used to promote plasticity for targeted rehabilitation in stroke and spinal cord injury patients -- essentially reconnecting brain or spinal regions and helping the nervous system repair and rewire itself.
CSNE is also working on improving today's implantable technologies, such as deep brain stimulators used to treat Parkinson's disease and tremors. These typically deliver electric pulses to the brain at an appropriate frequency that's adjusted by a physician to achieve the desired effect.
But this means that the brain is constantly bombarded by electrical pulses even when a person is resting and the pulses aren't needed. This can lead to unwanted side effects and drain the implantable device's battery, leading to more frequent replacement surgeries.
By contrast, CSNE researchers and industry partners are working on a next generation of 'closed loop' implantable devices that monitor the brain and deliver targeted electrical stimulation only when it's needed.
"This funding renewal for CSNE will allow us to advance the frontiers in closed-loop neural interfaces," said CSNE deputy director Chet Moritz, a UW associate professor of rehabilitation medicine and of physiology and biophysics.