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High-tech rehabilitation to paralysed people

Photo: High-tech help for the paralysed in robots
Science-fiction is becoming reality as brain-controlled robotic body suits offer high-tech rehabilitation to paralysed people.

Germany made its way into the history books by winning the 2014 FIFA World Cup but it will be the sporting event's opening ceremony that will be remembered always by one particular Brazilian man.

Paralysed from the waist down, 29-year-old Juliano Pinto sauntered on to the pitch at the Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo in a brain-controlled robotic body suit - like something seen in sci-film Elysium - to perform the symbolic kick-off.

The moment marked the launch of the international Walk Again Project - led by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis from Duke University in the US.

In the three years since then, researchers have explored how brain machine interfaces (BMIs) - like the brain-controlled robotic suit Pinto wore - and virtual reality technology can be used to help restore mobility in eight people paralysed from spinal cord injuries (SCIs).
Now the project's first paper has been published and shows all patients regained partial sensation and muscle control in their lower limbs following 12 months of the high-tech rehabilitation.

The most dramatic effect was seen in a 32-year-old who moved her legs for the first time in 13 years.

In recent years BMIs have emerged as potential options to restore mobility in patients severely paralysed as a result of SCIs or neurodegenerative disorders.

To date no study has suggested long-term training using a BMI-based program combined with physical training could trigger neurological recovery.

However, Nicolelis says researchers have found, to their "big surprise", that it can lead to partial neurological recovery.

Neurological examinations carried out after 12 months of training using the BMI protocols found all the participants experienced a significant clinical improvement in their ability to perceive sensations and exert voluntary motor control in muscles below the original SCI.

As to how and why it works, Nicolelis suggests the original lesion may not have destroyed all the nerve fibres of the spinal cord at the point of the injury and that surviving nerves had gone to sleep.

"It's almost like we turned them on again," he said.

Nicolelis hopes the research, published in the medical journal Scientific Reports, will lead to future treatment that will help paraplegics walk again.


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