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Getting up every morning, walking downstairs to grab the first cup of coffee of the day, getting ready, dressed and drive to work are mainly a routine for most of us. It might seem so easy, we do it every day, we constantly interact with objects in our surroundings and it is part of our life so much that we often lose perspective on how essential these actions are. However, for people that suffer from paralysis, the situation can be extremely different. And unfortunately, over 250 thousand people every year lose the ability to move as a result of an accident.
Consistent trauma to the spinal cord makes it impossible for the person to perform movements and depending on where the injury is located, it can result in a condition that is as limiting as losing one’s ability to speak. Recovery options are extremely variable and prognosis is usually permanent. The key factor of spinal cord injuries is that, because the injury interests the spine only, people who suffer from this condition are still fully aware and fully capable of initiating speech and movement. You can imagine yourself driving on a road, you have to deliver a package to a building that is located on the other side of a bridge yet this bridge is broken and there is no way for you to cross it even though you are fully awake and your car is in perfect condition. Exactly like this, even though people with spinal cord injury can, in fact, think of moving their foot to walk across the room, the input coming from the brain just will not cross the broken bridge of the spinal cord. What if then, we could take the brain input and “deliver” it to the foot thus bypassing the spinal cord injury?
Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are a group of techniques that can help people suffering with paralysis to interact with the world once again. The brain is linked to a computer that will translate the brain signal into commands that can be used to drive a wheelchair, for example, and can help the patient navigate willingly and independently; a virtual speller will make patients communicate again; an exoskeleton (yes, they exist!) will make them move again. These are just some examples of the several ways BCIs could support people after spinal cord injuries and drastically improve their quality of life.
One of the most inspiring examples is that of Miguel Nicolelis, a pioneer in BCIs and neuro-prosthetics that in 2014 showed to the world the result of his impressive work helping a paralysed man perform the kick off at the 2014 World Cup. You can watch his amazing Ted Talk following this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQzXqjT0w3k.
The current development of these techniques requires, however, extensive training for the patients to be able to fully control the machine to their will and, more importantly, because of the individual differences in patients’ brains and variety of the condition itself, what works for one person might not work for others. This is significantly slowing the chances of applying BCIs in the rehabilitation techniques as a regular practice.
Current research is focusing on how to improve accuracy of the different techniques, feasibility but, above all, universality: studying the brain of several patients and identifying similarities in the ways these adjust after the paralysis can help creating a model that can fit more and more patients to ideally be able to create something that will be highly inclusive and universal.
In conclusion, can a computer help patients overcome their paralysed state? Right now, it is not yet something everyone can gain access to and benefit from as normal practice. However, extensive progress has been made in the past two decades and this suggests that, in the near future, scientific research could, in fact, achieve great success in making this possible and accessible for all who need it.