Could a digital bridge to link brain and spinal cord help those with MS?

Breakthrough in Switzerland gives once-paralyzed man the ability to walk

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by Ed Tobias |

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We all know that the difficulty many of us with multiple sclerosis (MS) have walking can be caused by lesions that damage the nerves along the spinal cord. What if an electronic bridge could be built to carry nerve impulses over those damaged areas? That concept is being investigated as a way to help people who’ve been paralyzed by a spinal cord injury. Could it also apply to people with MS?

An article published on May 24 in Nature reports on how scientists in Switzerland have created a “digital bridge” to allow a man to walk again after a 2011 motorcycle accident paralyzed him from the waist down. Not only that, according to a story in the The New York Times, a year after receiving the brain and spinal implants that created the bridge, the man can stand, get in and out of a car, and walk up a steep ramp with the help of a walker. He’s also showing signs that his central nervous system is recovering, by walking with crutches even when the implants are powered off.

The bridge’s artificial intelligence and radio signals

The system being used to accomplish this improvement involves recording brain activity and then using those signals to stimulate the spinal cord. To accomplish this, wireless implants were placed in the patient’s skull and spine. An artificial intelligence (AI) thought decoder detects walking desires that are generated in specific parts of the patient’s brain and matches them with the muscles needed to do that walking. A radio signal is sent between the implants, which stimulates those muscles to move. These signals occur every 300 milliseconds.

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“We’ve captured the thoughts of Gert-Jan [Gert-Jan Oskam, the patient], and translated these thoughts into a stimulation of the spinal cord to re-establish voluntary movement,” Grégoire Courtine, a spinal cord specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne, who helped lead the research, told The Times.

But this feat isn’t easy to accomplish. The treatment requires multiple surgeries and hours of physical therapy. As pictured in the study, the patient must wear a headset and a backpack device that carries radio receivers, transmitters, and an AI processing unit.

Would it work for someone with MS?

Could this method someday help someone with MS to walk? That’s hard to say. The Swiss researchers say their system won’t fix all spinal cord paralysis, but as a nonscientist, I have to wonder why a similar device couldn’t be developed that would. It was only a little over three years ago that scientists at Duke University were using rats to experiment with transmitting sensory signals between the brain and the spinal cord. Imagine what might be happening in this field four or five years from now.

Perhaps MS presents too many damaged areas on the spinal cord to be spanned, and I’m sure other obstacles will have to be overcome. Right now, a robotlike exoskeleton is being used for gait training with some MS patients, but it’s an external device.

It’d be nice to devote more MS research time and money to creating technology, such as this digital bridge. I don’t know if it’s happening, but please let me know if it is. I’d like to write about it.

You’re invited to visit my personal blog at www.themswire.com.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Comments

Adrian Sohn avatar

Adrian Sohn

Dear Ed: I like your approach, I too think it would be great if A.I. could help me walk. I now need a walker to get around and am trying everything I can to improve my health.
Meditation
Going to the gym and using a cross-trainer, swimming etc etc
Anything else would/could be useful.
FYI I was a family doctor x 30 years till I had to retire 5 years ago because of my MS
Thanks for your interest

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Adrian,

Thanks for writing. I think you're doing a lot of the right things. In fact, I just got back from the gym where I did some upper body resistance work. I'm in Florida 7 months of the year where I also do a lot of swimming. I'm doubt, as I approach my 75th birthday, that I'll see the day when AI will help me but I have hope it will help others. But also, as you well know, first do no harm.

Ed

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Victoria avatar

Victoria

Dear Ed,
I’ve had ms for 40 years and thank Gd I’m still fully ambulatory. After a few falls ending in broken bones- arm, nothing worse,my family helped me get an orthotic device that works along those same lines as the implant you described, but is external cuffs fittes wit electricity stimulators that are fitted to each client for managing foot drop.

The company that manufactures them is called Bioness, a private company that made there’s personalized walking aides their business. I
M sure it’s lucrative for them, the origin of the device was Israeli technology and I know more research on these types of devices are being researched and is being developed for different. Purposes in Carnegie Mellon Univesity’s labs and I’m sure in various others, I’m sure with rapidly developing Aiwell soon see more of these walking aides,both external and implanted.

Love your writing,

Victoria

Reply
Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Hi Victoria,

Thanks for taking the time to write. I've been using the Bioness L300 GO for several years and, before it, the original L300. You're right...it's not inexpensive and insurance generally won't cover the cost. I've found that it can be useful, but not always. Here's something I wrote about my experience: https://multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com/columns/2020/08/18/bioness-l300-go-fes-review/

There are new devices in the works, as you say, and recently one called a neural sleeve was cleared by the FDA: https://multiplesclerosisnewstoday.com/news-posts/2022/03/11/fda-neural-sleeve-cionic-multiple-sclerosis-patients-walking/

I'm really glad you like what I write,

Ed

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Claudia N Chamberlain avatar

Claudia N Chamberlain

Great article! Thank you

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Ed Tobias avatar

Ed Tobias

Thanks for the thanks, Claudia. I'm very glad the column was interesting to you.

Ed

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