Eight people with spinal cord injuries that were affected by paralysis partially regained sensation and muscle control after VR brain training.
Researchers from the Duke University Center for Neuroengineering created a system of virtual reality simulations, exoskeletons and tactile feedback that managed to activate the connection between mind and body.
The weekly brain training helped patients to gain control again over the undamaged spinal cord nerves surviving the accidents or the car crashes that caused paralysis.
In one year of training, patients had voluntary movements and had to be reclassified as a partial paraplegic.
Another success was the fact that patients regained control over their bladder and bowel function, which made them capable of organizing their bathroom routine for the first time in years.
At the beginning of the study, the eight patients had no capacity to move their limbs and had no tactile feeling below the level of the wound. Their lower parts of their bodies had been paralyzed for a period of three or 13 years.
The study started with a brain scan during which the participants had to think about walking. The computer images showed no activity at all in the movement regions of the brain. The researchers concluded that the representation of the lower limbs and the idea of locomotion were almost completely erased from the brain.
The brain training involved two hours spent in a VR environment where patients had to control an avatar walking around a soccer field. An electroencephalogram cap monitored their brain, and a special shirt sent a vibration to their arms every time the avatar was making a move.
After a couple of months, the brain activity connected to walking started to reactivate. The brain learned the idea of walking.
The next stage involved a more challenging exercise, which made the participants able to move their bodies.
The equipment included a harness that sustained the body weight, a robotic device that moved the legs according to brain signals, and an exoskeleton that took steps as the brain would command. The feedback shirt was vibrating at every move, sending signals through the arms.
In 12 months, all the participants experienced different levels of recovery of their muscle function and tactile sensation. A part of them were actually capable of moving multiple joints in their lower members.
The most dramatic improvement occurred in the case of a woman that had been paralyzed for 13 years. She regained the ability to move with the help of a walker. After a year, she was able to move her legs voluntarily, with her weight supported by a harness.
The experiment is considered to be a breakthrough in the medical field, as no one thought that these patients could be helped anymore.
The training works by allowing the brain to rediscover the legs by using the healthy spinal cord nerves. It involves many hours of combined methods of treatment, and it will be further improved.
The patients participating in the study continued to train, and their movement control continued to enhance. The plateau for recovery was not yet reached. However, a stop in the training would annul the improvements.
Whereas the brain training cannot be useful to people that experienced a complete cut of the spiral cord, the researchers think it may be helpful for patients that lost their mobility because of stroke or neurological diseases.
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