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The ‘Holy Grail’ of Bionics? This ‘Bionic Spine’ Could Help the Paralyzed Walk Again

millimeter ruler with bionic implantThis year, we will see the first ever athletic competition for paralyzed athletes and bionic technologies alike. The 2016 Cybathlon is nearly upon us and we can’t wait!

But while we’re waiting for the athletes to power up their robotic exoskeletons, we thought it might be good to check in on what’s new in the world of bionics—which is the study of robotics and human life working together as one. As a matter of fact, Australian scientists believe that they’ve achieved the ‘holy grail’ of bionics. Their tiny device, just three centimeters long and a few millimeters wide, can supposedly enable paralyzed patients to walk again!

The new device, dubbed the “bionic spine,” is about the size of a paperclip and would enable a patient with paralysis of the legs to control bionic limbs with the power of subconscious thought—essentially allowing them to walk under their own power. Three patients at the Royal Melbourne hospital in Victoria have already been selected to receive these implants later next year.

Prof Terry O’Brien, the head of medicine in the hospital’s neurology department, says the development of the bionic spine is the “holy grail” for bionics researchers. He says that while patients would initially have to be taught to think about moving their bionic limbs, over time these thoughts should become subconscious as signals from the brain become more readily converted into movements.

“For example if I want to pick up a phone, but my hand is paralysed, I can use my other hand to pick up the phone instead,” he tells The Guardian. “You have a normal way to use the brain to pick up the phone, but if that doesn’t work, you find another way. Your brain learns another function can be harnessed to do what you’ve lost.”

In order for this device to work, doctors will need to perform a minimally invasive surgery on the patients, feeding the bionic spine through a catheter into the blood vessels leading to the brain. Once there, the device will rest on top of the motor cortex (the part of the brain that controls voluntary movement).

The outside of the bionic spine is covered with electrodes which will detect signals from the motor cortex and send them to a small device implanted in the patient’s shoulder. The receiver in the patient’s shoulder picks up the signal via Bluetooth and translates them into commands.

Now, this isn’t the first time that devices have allowed paraplegics to walk again. In 2014, for example, 29-year-old paraplegic Juliano Pinto used a robotic exoskeleton to make the opening kick for the World Cup. However, most implantable devices require invasive surgery involving removing a piece of the skull, known as a craniotomy, which carries a risk of infection and other complications.

On the other hand, the bionic spine is minimally invasive and less cumbersome than a robotic exoskeleton. Dr. Nicholas Opie,a principal investigator and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, described it as a straightforward procedure that would only take a couple of hours. “This is a procedure that Royal Melbourne staff do commonly to remove blood clots,” he says. “The difference with our device is we have to put it in, and leave it in.”

It’s amazing to think that we are getting closer and closer to being able to control bionic limbs with only our thoughts. And what’s even greater is that people who have never walked before may be running in a marathon sooner than we think!

Photo credit: University of Melbourne – Pursuit via The Guardian

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