This 30-millimetre bionic spine could help paralysed patients to walk again

Scientists from the University of Melbourne have come up with the holy grail of bionics research: a bionic spine implant that can be applied to a patient within a couple of hours. So far it has only been tested on sheep, but will enter into human trials in 2017, and could help paralysed patients to walk again using the power of their subconscious thought.

This isn’t the first method used to allow paralysed patients to walk again, but other methods – such as the exoskeletal suit demonstrated to make the first kick of the 2014 rugby World Cup – are significantly more difficult. The bionic spine can be implanted in just a few hours, with no need for “high-risk open brain surgery” and the possible complications that can cause. “This is a procedure that Royal Melbourne staff do commonly to remove blood clots,” Dr Nicholas Opie, a team member from the university, told The Guardian. “The difference with our device is we have to put it in, and leave it in.”

That’s possible because the bionic spine is tiny – just 30 milimetres long, or around the size of a paperclip. The procedure involves a small cut in the back of a patient’s neck, into which the implant is fed into the blood vessels via a catheter. When it reaches the motor cortex, the catheter is removed, but the implant is left behind.

The motor cortex is where the brain controls muscular activity. Once the bionic spine is in place, it will stick to the vein’s walls and record electrical signals from the brain, which can then be passed on to another device implanted in the shoulder. This second implant then issues commands that can be read by everything from wheelchairs to prosthetic limbs – or even computers via Bluetooth.

Patients won’t understand how to use the device immediately, but with a little training, deliberate careful thoughts about moving the limbs should eventually become subconscious, in much the same way that organic limbs are controlled.

“Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton,” explains lead researcher Dr Thomas Oxley. “In essence, this is a bionic spinal cord.”

Human trials are due to begin next year. Fingers crossed the bionic spine lives up to its huge promise.

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Image: University of Melbourne

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