In technology which could have come straight out of a science fiction novel or Hollwood movie, French scientists have created a thin prosthetic ribbon, embedded with electrodes, which lies along the spinal cord and delivers electrical impulses and drugs.
The prosthetic, described by British experts as ‘quite remarkable’, is soft enough to bend with tissue surrounding the backbone to avoid discomfort.
Paralysed rats who were fitted with the implant were able to walk on their own again after just a few weeks of training. Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne are hoping to move to clinical trials in humans soon. They believe that a device could last 10 years in humans before needing to be replaced.
The implant, called ‘e-Dura’, is so effective because it mimics the soft tissue around the spine, known as the dura mater so that the body does not reject its presence. “Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or cortex,” said Professor Stéphanie Lacour.
“This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed
following spinal cord injury.”
Previous experiments had shown that chemicals and electrodes implanted in the spine could take on the role of the brain and stimulate nerves, causing the rats' legs to move involuntarily when they were placed on a treadmill.
But this is the first study to show a simple gadget can help rats walk again and be tolerated by the body. Scientists have struggled to find a device which will sit next to the spine or brain because both are surrounded by a protective envelope of tissue which the hard surface of implants can rub against, causing inflammation and scar tissue.
Writing in the journal ‘Science’, where the results were published, science writer Robert Service said: "Soft flexible nerves connected to unyielding silicon and metal - the combination has spawned many a Hollywood cybord.
There is still a long way to go before we may see any practical use of such neuroprostheses in humans. But it may be that it is something that could potentially be developed for use in humans in the foreseeable future.