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How Australian researchers' 'bionic spine' will help paraplegics

In what could become an evolutionary technological breakthrough to cure spinal damage, researchers at Australias Royal Melbourne Hospital have developed...

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|Feb 16|magazine7 min read

In what could become an evolutionary technological breakthrough to cure spinal damage, researchers at Australia’s Royal Melbourne Hospital have developed a small ‘bionic spine’ which will help paralyzed patients improve mobility.

Although the device so far has only been tested on sheep, three patients from the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Austin Health spinal cord unit have already been selected to be the first volunteers for human trials in 2017.

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The implant will be the size of a paper clip and placed into a blood vessel adjacent to the brain to read electrical signals — then feeding them into an exoskeleton, bionic limbs or wheelchair based on subconscious thoughts. It will allow paraplegics to have better movement through nerve impulses.

With the help of a catheter, the small stent is inserted into the jugular vein in the neck and pushed upward until it reaches the motor cortex of the brain, which controls movement. Since it uses the vein to imbed the stint rather than brain surgery, the procedure can be completed in only a few hours.

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The stent essentially acts as a recording device, collecting electrical activity from neurons in the motor cortex, then translating the activity into commands. Those commands are transmitted by 12 wires to an implant in the chest, which then sends commands wirelessly to the exoskeleton or wheelchair.

"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,” said Royal Melbourne Hospital neurologist and lead researcher Thomas Oxley. “In essence this a bionic spinal cord.”

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