Computer harnesses power of thought

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iol scitech apri 12 brain science REUTERS File photo: Researchers took neurons from rats and anchored them onto the scaffold, and the gel encouraged growth.

London - A paralysed hand has been made to grip again in a breakthrough that could transform the lives of disabled stroke victims.

In experiments, monkeys were able to use the power of thought to move hands that were paralysed.

While it may sound like the stuff of science fiction, Newcastle University researchers say the first human patients could be treated within five years.

John Williams of the Wellcome Trust, which funded the research, said it could “transform lives”.

Being able to button clothes or brush teeth could hugely increase independence – but something as simple as moving from bed to a wheelchair unaided might make the biggest difference.

In the paralysed, the brain tries to send a signal to move frozen limbs, but it is blocked by damage to the brain or spinal cord.

The scientists have found a way of bypassing the blockage by capturing the signal, decoding it in a computer and sending it on so the hand muscles move.

Monkeys used the technique to pull a lever despite being given a drug that temporarily paralysed their hands. It is hoped that decoding other signals will make other movements possible in the future, such as the pinching motion needed to turn a key.

The same principle could be used to help move paralysed arms and even legs, researcher Andrew Jackson said.

The technology must now be made smaller, for convenience, and durable enough to last for decades. Dr Jackson envisages a treatment involving two sets of electrodes and a mobile phone-sized decoding device.

The first electrodes, implanted in the brain, would pick up the signals telling the hand to move.

The messages would be passed to the decoding device, placed in the chest. Once decoded, they would be sent to the spinal cord, where a second set of electrodes would trigger movement of the muscles in the hand.

Dr Jackson said: “Much of the technology we used for this is already being used separately in patients today and has been proven to work. We just need to bring it all together. I think within five years we could have an implant ready for people.

“There are still some technical challenges, as with any new technology, but we are making good progress.”

Eventually it may even be possible to send signals back to the brain, which could allow paralysed hands to feel heat, cold and pressure, journal Frontiers in Neuroscience reports.

Dr Shamim Quadir, of the Stroke Association, said many patients are partially paralysed. He added: “By bridging damaged parts of the brain, we hope more people will be able to make their best possible recovery from the devastating effects of stroke.” - Daily Mail

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