Scientists have successfully enabled paralyzed rats to walk in the past with a combination of pharmaceuticals and electrical stimulus. Most of the work in these studies has employed external electrical devices hooked up to the rats for a short period of time. Hooking up external devices to humans’ heads is a non-starter, however. The key need is a long-term implant on the brain or spinal cord, but most implant designs are relatively rigid which doesn’t work beneath human tissue. The risks of rigid implants include inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection, all resulting from natural nerve tissue movement and stretching around the implant.
Researchers at Switzerland’s École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have developed the e-Dura implant, specifically designed to be implanted on the brain or spinal cord. The flexible device has elasticity and the ability to be pushed to new shapes — called “deformation” — similar to living tissue. In testing with rats, e-Dura prototypes were neither damaged nor rejected for periods as long as two months. According to the scientists, there would have been significant nerve damage with traditional rigid implants over that period of time. With the flexible implants, paralyzed rats regained the ability to walk independently with just a few weeks of training.
E-Dura implants have significant implications for positive therapeutic outcomes for patients who are paralyzed after spinal cord injury or suffer from other neurological trauma or disorders. Using the implants to detect brain and spinal cord activity preceding movement can also provide a world of helpful information for scientists working on implants or other devices for treatment of epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and for pain management applications.