A device the size of a matchstick implanted in the brain may help a group of paralyzed people walk using only their thoughts and a robotic exoskeleton.
In 2017, researchers will choose a select group of paralyzed people from Australia to receive the implant, called a stentrode. If the trial succeeds, the technology could become commercially available in as little as six years.
The stentrode, crafted from a space-age alloy called nitinol, could also benefit people with Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease, obsessive compulsive disorder, and depression. It could even predict and manage seizures in epileptic patients.
It will be inserted into the blood vessel with a catheter fed up through the groin—the same approach that has been used for years for cardiology and removing stroke clots.
“This technology is really exciting. It’s the first time that we’ve been able to demonstrate and develop a device that can be implanted without the need for a big operation, to chronically record brain activity,” says Terry O’Brien from the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the University of Melbourne’s Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Faculty.
“The most obvious benefit is for people who are paralyzed following a stroke or spinal cord injury. It is simple and non-invasive and much safer for patients.”
NO DANGEROUS SURGERY REQUIRED
The stentrode is inserted into a blood vessel that sits over the motor cortex. The device is delivered through a small catheter, and when in position, the catheter is removed, deploying the stentrode.
The stentrode expands to press the electrodes against the vessel wall close to the brain where it can record neural information and translate these signals into commands that can be used to control an exoskeleton.
When the catheter is inserted into the blood vessel in the brain, it leaves a small cigar-shaped “basket,” wired with electrodes, that can record the brainwave activity.
“There is no craniotomy, no risk of infection; it’s all run through the groin and passed inside the body up into the brain,” says O’Brien.
“This has been the Holy Grail for research in bionics—a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods. Inside the blood vessel, it’s protected—it doesn’t damage the brain vessel and can stay there forever.”
Continue reading to learn about the success of their live testing of the stentrode in sheep.