Is brain-computer interface for spinal cord injury recovery the next big treatment?
Imagine being able to use your thoughts to control assistive devices that can help you become more independent.
This article will explain how brain-computer interface is creating a more hopeful future for spinal cord injury patients.
Let’s get started!
What is Brain-Computer Interface for Spinal Cord Injury Recovery?
The spinal cord is the communication pathway that delivers sensory and motor information between the brain and body.
After a spinal cord injury, the damaged portion of the spinal cord cannot heal itself.
This disrupts communication between the brain and body and causes paralysis.
Brain-computer interface (aka brain-machine interface, mind-machine interface, and brain-controlled interface) is an emerging technology with lots of potential for treating spinal cord injuries.
It works by using brain signals to animate assistive devices that can replace paralyzed limbs.
Electrodes are implanted into the brain to monitor signals that are analyzed and used to prompt external activity.
While non-invasive, wearable electroencephalograms (EEGs) can be used to detect brain activity, they’re not as precise as an electrode implant.
Brain-computer interface can also be paired with electrical stimulation to promote functions below the level of injury.
What gives spinal cord injury patients a bit of an edge for this type of treatment is that their brains and bodies are not damaged, just a part of the link between them.
Using Brain-Computer Interface to Replace Paralyzed Limbs
One way brain-computer interfaces can be utilized is to connect brain activity to assistive technologies like a robotic arm.
By monitoring the intent to move in the brain, the robotic arm can be signaled to act. Just by thinking about moving the artificial arm, you can get it to pick items up and maneuver them.
However, this approach does bring up whether one is giving up on recovery and depending too much on the device.
Incomplete spinal cord injury patients still have some neural pathways that have been spared, which is why they may be able to feel or move certain parts of their body below their level of injury.
Although damaged areas of the spinal cord cannot be healed, the body, brain, and spinal cord can be retrained to work in sync again through a process called neuroplasticity.
The central nervous system is incredibly adaptive. Mechanisms like axonal sprouting and circuit regeneration use spared neural pathways to recover functions affected by spinal cord injury.
The catch is that these functions must be repeated thousands of times to strengthen the pathways enough to adapt.
So while the potential to recover is still there, becoming too reliant on technology may prevent progress.
Combining Brain-Computer Interfaces and Electrical Stimulation
Using brain-computer interface for recovery involves bypassing the damaged neural pathways caused by spinal cord injury and utilizing electrical stimulation to directly activate the paralyzed muscles.
The nerves below the lesion aren’t broken, they just can’t receive signals from the brain because the lesion disrupts the connection.
By working around the spinal cord injury, your muscles can be directly stimulated by electrical impulses activated by your thoughts.
Check out the video below to see how brain-computer interface and electrical stimulation are being combined to promote movement.
Disadvantages of Brain-Computer Interface for Spinal Cord Injury
Brain-computer interface is not yet fully developed, and its effects must be researched further.
Some drawbacks of brain-computer interface for spinal cord injury include:
- Unavailable for Home-Use. Brain-computer interfaces are not yet developed for at-home use and generally need to be monitored in a lab setting.
- Invasive Nature. Many BCIs require surgery to implant electrodes in the brain. Although non-invasive methods do exist, they can’t capture the same brain signal quality as invasive methods. Similarly, the risks associated with neurosurgery (scarring, infection, further neurological damage, etc.) can also be significant deterrents.
- Over-Dependence. Relying on brain-computer interfaces to control assistive devices can result in over-dependence on technology rather than focusing on physical rehabilitation.
- High Costs. The high costs of attending multiple sessions, getting the implant, and technological maintenance can be quite substantial and are not realistic for the average person.
Researchers are working on resolving these problems by trying to create a more affordable, non-invasive, but still very effective form of the treatment that can be used at home.
The Future of Brain-Computer Interface for Spinal Cord Injury
Brain-computer interface is an innovative technology that could drastically improve quality of life in people with severe spinal cord injuries by helping them become more independent and confident.
Hopefully, this article helped you better understand what brain-computer interface is and how it can potentially be used for SCI patients.
Although it is still very much a work in progress, it is providing many people with paralysis hope for a more active and functional future.
Featured image: ©iStock.com/peshkov