The dream of electrically bypassing spinal cord injuries to restore movement to paralysed limbs is becoming a reality.
Thanks to technology developed by researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus, a quadriplegic man has been able to use his own thoughts to move his paralysed arm.
Ian Burkhart, A 23-year-old who is paralysed from the neck down, is the first patient ever to use Neurobridge. It’s an electronic neural bypass system that reconnects the brain directly to the muscles and enables the patient to voluntarily control a paralysed limb by sending signals.
For Burkhart, the prospect of moving his limbs again is exciting and potentially life-changing.
“Picking up a cup of water and drinking it, or brushing your teeth or feeding yourself, you know, those things. If you can do those on your own, it makes a big difference in your life,” he said.
Batelle developed the Neurobridge technology. Lead researcher Chad Bouton talked us through it.
“It’s much like a heart bypass, but instead of bypassing blood, we’re actually bypassing electrical signals,” he explained. “We’re taking those signals from the brain, going around the injury, and actually going directly to the muscles.”
Neurobridge technology involves implanting a chip smaller than a pea into the patient’s brain to read electrical activity in the area responsible for hand motion.
Signals are continuously gathered and decoded using special software, which figures out which muscles are being asked to contract. This is then passed onto an electric stimulator that activates those muscles.
It all happens within a tenth of a second, providing almost instantaneous control.
The team plans to test Neurobridge on four other patients as part of the ongoing clinical trial.
The hyper-spectral imaging camera
Staying in the medical field, scientists in Finland have developed a lightweight, hand-held hyper-spectral imaging camera.
They say it can detect the early stages of skin cancer, which are invisible to the naked eye.
The camera can take enlarged spectral images of the tested areas in seconds. It highlights differences between healthy and potentially cancerous skin, so that early signs of skin damage leading to cancer can be diagnosed.
Ilkka Polonen, a researcher at the University of Jyvaskyl outlined how the camera works:
“(The) Hyper-spectral camera is quite similar to a regular digital camera, except when (a) normal digital camera takes three large wavelengths in one shot – R, G and B – red, green and blue, this one takes narrower wavelengths from 500 milimetres to 850 nanometres.”
The hyper-spectral camera has also been used to detect the borders of poorly delineated skin tumours. Lentigo malignas, for example, are difficult to detect with the naked eye and can redevelop if not eliminated entirely during surgery.
Sub-clinical actinic keratoses, or sun spots – a pre-cancerous skin condition that appear as dry, scaly lesions after prolonged and repeated exposure to the sun – can also be detected. Noora Neittaanmaki-Perttu a doctor and researcher in Skin and Allergies and Helsinki University Central Hospital explained:
“Surrounding these lesions there can be more lesions like sub-clinical lesions and that’s what we want to do with hyper-spectral imaging.
“We want to see all the sub-clinical lesions, so we can now see them before the treatment and after the treatment we image the whole area again to see if there were lesions left.”
Clinical trials are being conducted at hospitals throughout Finland. Researchers say the initial results look promising.