Some people are paraplegics as the result of trauma to the spine. Their body still is capable of functioning, but the line of communications with the brain has been broken. Some researchers are trying to find ways to reconnect those broken connections. Others are looking for a work-around to solve the problem, literally working around the disconnect to provide an alternate pathway for the brain to send and receive information to the rest of the body. Scientists have made great progress in creating a brain-body interface.
That research just received a big boost. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $8 million to three California universities to fund the development of a brain implant to control an exoskeleton that will also provide sensory feedback. The first part of the project will be to decode brain signals, to determine which ones indicate commands to make the body walk. These impulses will then be used to drive an exoskeleton, which will have sensors that are used to provide feedback to the brain so subjects will be able to “feel” when they are walking.
The three schools involved in the program are the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC), University of California, Irvine (UCI) and Caltech. Each has a team of researchers with different areas of expertise to contribute to the project. Programs like this one can give a push to the development of neuroprosthetics and other brain-machine interface technology, which can have implications far beyond helping paralyzed people walk again.