Robot-Like Machines Helped People With Spinal Injuries Regain Function

Richard Harris | NPR | August 11, 2016

Scientists with the international scientific collaboration known as the "Walk Again Project" use noninvasive brain-machine interfaces in their efforts to reawaken damaged fibers in the spinal cord. Researchers in Brazil who are trying to help people with spine injuries gain mobility have made a surprising discovery: Injured people doing brain training while interacting with robot-like machines were able to regain some sensation and movement.

The findings, published in Scientific Reports (one of the Nature journals), suggest that damaged spinal tissue in some people with paraplegia can be retrained to a certain extent — somewhat the way certain people can regain some brain function following stroke though repetition and practice. In fact, this isn't a new idea for treating injuries of the spinal cord. Even people with severe injuries can regain some sensation and function through physical therapy if some nerve fibers remain.

The eight paralyzed people in the Brazilian study didn't regain enough mobility to support their own weight on their legs, but Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist and physician with Duke University who led the research, says his experimental subjects did make "partial recovery" — improvements that significantly helped their quality of life. They had better control of bowel and bladder functions, he says. Some men were able to have erections and one woman decided to deliver a baby vaginally...