Eight people suffering from paralysis caused by a spinal injury have regained some sensation after training with robotic exoskeletons and virtual reality avatars, according to a study from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Eight Brazilians who had had lower limb paralysis for 3 – 15 years took part in hour-long training sessions twice a week. They started by controlling a virtual reality avatar with their brain signals. They then progressed to controlling robotic legs on a treadmill while their weight was supported, before finally making an exoskeleton walk on a treadmill.
After a year of treatment, all eight patients showed an increase in sensation in the legs and had regained some muscle control in the affected limbs. To date, all but one participant – who moved away and stopped training – have had their paralysis reclassified from complete to partial.
While none of them are close to walking unaided, some can now voluntarily move muscles in their legs and exercise more control over their bladder or bowel. These changes represent significant improvements in their quality of life.
Miguel Nicolelis, who authored the study, explained that most spinal cord injuries involve a crushing of the cord. These types of injuries stop the nerve connections from functioning, but they remain viable pathways. He said: “Something may have survived the original trauma. We may have rekindled these remaining neurons.”