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Brain-Computer Link in Development for Spinal Injury

Man in wheelchair

(University of Southern California)

14 September 2017. A consortium of engineering labs is designing a system translating commands in the brain to prosthetic devices that help people walk with spinal cord injury. The five-year project is funded by an $8 million National Science Foundation grant to University of California in Irvine, University of Southern California, and California Institute of Technology.

Spinal cord injuries are often caused by a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that bruises or tears into spinal cord tissue, resulting in fractures or compression to vertebrae, or in some cases severing the spinal cord. Depending on severity, people with spinal cord injuries often suffer loss of feeling or motor function in the limbs, and in some cases complete paralysis. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, spinal cord injuries occur in 54 out of 1 million people in the U.S., adding some 17,500 new cases each year. The researchers say spinal cord injuries cost the U.S. health care system some $50 billion per year.

The project, led by UC-Irvine engineering and computer science professor Payam Heydari, aims to develop an implantable connection between an individual’s brain and computer system that translates walking intentions into electronic signals for a prosthetic device, like an exoskeleton, to help the person with spinal cord injury walk. That same brain-computer link is also expected to translate sensor signals on the prosthetic device into brain signals interpreted as leg sensations, to recreate as much as possible walking behavior of able-bodied persons.

“Spinal cord injuries are devastating and have a profoundly negative impact on independence and quality of life of those affected,” says Heydari in a UC-Irvine statement. “The goal of this multidisciplinary project is to create an implantable system that by circumventing the damaged portion of the spinal cord can enable patients with these injuries to regain feeling in their legs and walk again.”

Heydari and colleagues plan to adapt technology behind electrocorticograms, devices that monitor electrical activity with electrodes inside the brain, including signals to motor regions. However, the device being developed will operate with little power, and send and receive signals simultaneously. The proposed device will have two modules. The first section will acquire brain signals much like an electrocorticogram, while the second module will have a processor, brain stimulator, and wireless transceiver. This second section will execute internal algorithms for communicating with the exoskeleton to enable the wearer to walk.

The project plans to establish the device’s feasibility and safety. The team expects to first build a working implantable model and subject that device to lab tests. The researchers then plan to recruit individuals with paraplegia as a result of spinal cord injury to implant and test the device for 30 days, mainly to evaluate its safety.

The NSF grant is made from the agency’s Cyber-Physical Systems program that funds advanced developments connecting computing and physical systems in agriculture, energy, transportation, building design, and manufacturing, as well as health care.

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