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Brain-Machine Interface May Help Restore Mobility in Paraplegics

Last Updated: August 11, 2016.

A regimen of brain training has restored partial sensation and muscle control in the legs of eight patients paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, according to the first clinical report from Duke's Walk Again Project, published online Aug. 11 in Scientific Reports.

THURSDAY, Aug. 11, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- A regimen of brain training has restored partial sensation and muscle control in the legs of eight patients paralyzed by spinal cord injuries, according to the first clinical report from Duke's Walk Again Project, published online Aug. 11 in Scientific Reports.

The patients' training regimen started with at least two hours a week spent in a virtual reality environment where their brains controlled the movement of a three-dimensional avatar. An electroencephalogram cap monitored the brain areas that control movement, and translated signals into steps taken by the avatar. A specially designed shirt produced tiny vibrations on their arms every time the avatar moved, providing tactile feedback of each step taken. After months of such training, the patients moved on to more challenging exercises using equipment that allowed them to move their own bodies. In all cases, the patients continued to wear the feedback shirt.

After 12 months of training, all eight patients experienced neurological improvements in somatic sensation in multiple dermatomes. Patients also regained voluntary motor control in key muscles below the spinal cord injury level, and 50 percent of these patients were upgraded to an incomplete paraplegia classification.

"We hypothesize that this unprecedented neurological recovery results from both cortical and spinal cord plasticity triggered by long-term brain-machine interfaces usage," the authors write.

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