Those with spinal cord injuries (SCI’s) know that medicine still has a long way toward a successful solution for their injury. Spinal cord injuries often occur as a result of trauma, such as a fall or gunshot wound. The initial physical compression and loss of blood supply to the spinal cord, followed by secondary edema and swelling cause a death of the spinal nerves which control our movement. In short, this type of injury usually takes away a person’s ability to walk and stand on their own.
SCI’s are normally classified in ASIA grades from complete (A) to normal (E), with incomplete injuries in between. Complete injuries involved complete loss of movement and sensation below the level of injury, while incomplete injuries maintain some preservation of sensation or motor control. Unfortunately, the rate of spontaneous recovery for those with complete injuries is low, while incomplete injuries have a slightly better success rate of recovery.
One project working toward a solution for spinal cord injuries by combining technology and rehabilitation is the Walk Again Project. Working toward a protocol for SCI recovery, this group has recently published research combining virtual reality and robotic assistance with variable gait training. And, it has shown promise of providing some recovery even for paralyzed individuals with complete SCI’s.
In the publication, the project demonstrates a partial return of neurological function in complete SCI’s by combining several methods of treatment. As the person controlled movement via a robotic exoskeleton with their brain using virtual reality for guidance, they also received some physical feedback from their environment. This physical feedback was applied to areas such as their feet or forearms in response to certain movements.
The results of this involved, year-long training are novel and incredible. People with previous complete loss of muscle and sensory function were able to regain some motor control, sensation, and proprioception after training. This is a novel publication by the length of the study and methods of guidance which lead those with SCI’s back toward recovery. The combination of brain machine interface, robotics, and rehabilitation provides a groundwork for future treatment options.
The effectiveness of this training may partly be explained by the idea that by forcing the body to walk and waking up the part of the brain which controls movement, the motor cortex, motor function is partially restored. Additionally, the physical movement may activate CPG’s (central pattern generators) in the spinal cord, which generate rhythmic movement. There may still be a long way to go toward medicine in SCI treatment, but this project provides solutions and hope through combined methods. Watch the video below for more insight into this amazing project: