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Spine Implant Helps Paralyzed People Exercise

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the how-long-till-we-start-putting-these-in-lazy-people dept.

Medicine 39

An anonymous reader writes "British engineers have created the first muscle-stimulating microchip small enough that several can be implanted in a person's spinal canal. In addition to providing enough stimulation to, say, let users pedal a stationary bicycle, they could also be used for things like stimulating bladder muscles to help overcome incontinence. Their breakthrough is that the devices package everything into one tiny unit. Lasers cut tiny electrodes from platinum foil, which are then folded into a 3D shape that looks like the pages of a book. These pages, in turn, wrap around the nerve roots."

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39 comments

Exciting (2, Interesting)

Improv (2467) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311788)

This is an exciting time to be alive. I wonder what the next 20 years will bring on this front. It'll be interesting if we can someday map all the output of the motor cortex and build wireless links to get around severed spinal nerves.

Re:Exciting (2, Funny)

Monkeedude1212 (1560403) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311828)

I don't like the idea of wirelessly controlled nerves.

Remote code injection - scary.

Re:Exciting (2, Insightful)

Konsalik (1921874) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311902)

This will become quite a serious subject once we start interfacing our biomedical implants with wider networks arround us such as PANs LANs and maybe even the internet. Worst case would be being able to kill somebody by hacking their devices.

Re:Exciting (3, Insightful)

gknoy (899301) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312364)

Oh, come on, it's not like we'd have to worry about people hacking our brains or altering everyone's perceptions in realtime [wikipedia.org]. Nobody would try that, and by "nobody" I mean "4chan".

Re:Exciting (1)

gknoy (899301) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312388)

To elaborate: in the short term, if implants get hackable wirelessly, I imagine that professional security goons will need to be implant-free in terms of nerves that affect anything motion, pain, or perception-related (and probably more). We don't want the Secret Service to suddenly keel over when their movement transmitters get jumbled (seizure?) or when their reflex augmentations get shut off (or hacked to do Other Crap).

If 4chan were to hack things up, I'd imagine they'd just put Guy Fawkes masks on footage of themselves, or overlay naughty pictures on the faces of Famous People.

Re:Exciting (2, Interesting)

RsG (809189) | more than 3 years ago | (#34313248)

There's only a few legitimate medical reasons I can see for making implants with wireless capability, and almost all of those could be made "send-only", or could alternatively be designed such that vital functions are isolated from network ones.

For example, a cardiac implant (pacemaker, artificial heart, whatever) might benefit from a "help, I'm having a heart attack!" mode, sending an alert over a preset network calling for paramedics. But such an option does not require that the implant be vulnerable to being screwed with.

For anything military, it seems to me you'd want zero RF emissions anyway, if only because there are times when the troops need to operate under radio silence. As far as that goes, I could see some reasons for shielding implants from outside interference completely, so as to make a hypothetical combat cyborg less vulnerable to electronic warfare. Faraday cage perhaps?

Hell, even a brain-computer interface could be isolated by making the interface port wired, thus requiring physical access to the hypothetical net-head's skull if you're going to do anything nasty, brain-wise (and if you're that close, less exotic methods can do the same job). Or, if it's got to be wireless to minimize the risk of bacterial infection, fit the receiver just below the skin, and make it optical - the transmitter would sit on the surface and beam light through the skin, but signals from a distance would be ineffective, obvious and directional.

Re:Exciting (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34316202)

If 4chan were to hack things up, I'd imagine they'd just put Guy Fawkes masks on footage of themselves, or overlay naughty pictures on the faces of Famous People.

I think the Laughing man [wikipedia.org] is more likely.

Re:Exciting (1)

goldaryn (834427) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312122)

I don't like the idea of wirelessly controlled nerves.

Remote code injection - scary.

Merely a marketing issue - "Make your enemies dance like Michael Flatley!"

It'll change the world, I tell ya! (2, Funny)

Just_Say_Duhhh (1318603) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311810)

implant that provides...stimulation. Battery operated? I hope they're rechargeable.

I just called my broker. This is one IPO I don't want to miss.

Power? (1)

Konsalik (1921874) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311822)

This is great but how would you power such a device if it is implanted in the spine? I am thinking external powersource on the spine (bonus points if they can make it look like Dead Space)

Re:Power? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34313062)

More importantly it might make Democrats worth voting for?

Science ruins the excuse (1)

Riddler Sensei (979333) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311908)

Now here is an entire people FREE from the nagging thought "I should go to the gym today" and these scientists want to take that AWAY from them? Those insensitive bastards!

Re:Science ruins the excuse (1)

Monkeedude1212 (1560403) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311954)

Those insensitive bastards!

A lump of earth! No wait... Lump of Clay? That's not it... A Stupid person! Closer... A Shoulder of beef?

Why can't I find the right way to put their insensitivities?

Lifestyle (3, Interesting)

Bruce Perens (3872) | more than 3 years ago | (#34311996)

they could also be used for things like stimulating bladder muscles to help overcome incontinence

Let's just say that there are other "lifestyle issues" that could be resolved through neural stimulation.

But I remember that disconnected nerves are said to atrophy or die, so this might work better for new injuries than old ones.

Re:Lifestyle (2, Interesting)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312140)

Here's an idea, which is probably patentable but I'm giving it to the world. Just remember where you read it first ;-)

If these people can pedal a stationary bicycle then they can exercise the largest muscle group in the body - clearly, good for overall health. A bit bloody boring, though, sitting in the gym pedalling away. So, fit a pedal-powered generator to a conventional power wheelchair. You can lose a lot of the weight of battery, because you can just pedal it. Scoot about on battery inside, with the generator folded down out of the way, then when you go outside fold out the pedals and switch on your implant. You ought to be able to make about the same amount of power as an "able-bodied" person pedalling a conventional bike, with the advantage that you can just keep pedalling when you stop at pedestrian crossings to top off your battery, or run other goodies.

Someone with a power wheelchair tell me why this wouldn't work. There must be a flaw (apart from the lack of spine implant thing), otherwise surely someone would be doing it. Imagine the difference it would make, having a power wheelchair that isn't restricted to slow, short-range trundling about. Once you've taken the requirement for energy storage out of it (or at least out of the big heavy batteries) you could really make a big difference to people's mobility.

73s de MM0YEQ

Re:Lifestyle (1)

KiloByte (825081) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312272)

Or, since this device can control the leg muscles, what about skipping pedaling and turning it into a walking device? Using, you know, legs.

Re:Lifestyle (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312338)

Or, since this device can control the leg muscles, what about skipping pedaling and turning it into a walking device? Using, you know, legs.

I'm guessing that getting walking to work reliably is going to be harder than getting pedalling to work reliably. DO NOT start thinking about how you walk, because you'll confuse yourself and fall over a lot. With that in mind, consider what happens when you walk up to a pedestrian crossing and start to cross. You go from walking along a flattish pavement to walking on a different surface with a bit of a step down - which must be compensated for, somehow. Now imagine you start to cross but a cyclist is (as usual) ignoring the red light and flies past you, forcing you to check your stride and stop at the kerb. How on earth do you do that "automatically"? How do you program a spine implant microcontroller to do that without dropping you, or sending you twitching off in a random direction?

Pedalling a bicycle generator type thing is easy. Sit down, make legs pedal. Have a button for fast, a button for slow, and a button for stop.

73s de MM0YEQ

Re:Lifestyle (1)

KiloByte (825081) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312522)

A wheelchair has the advantage of being simpler to program, yes. But walking using human muscles is merely a programming problem, one that needs some research effort spent on it. It's certainly not a trivial one, yet I guess it's not well-solved only because no one made a serious attempt there. Bipedal robots use a custom set of "muscles" rather than something even similar to human ones.

Re:Lifestyle (1)

arb phd slp (1144717) | more than 3 years ago | (#34312884)

You don't even have to get the walk sequence perfect. A lot of people with partial paralysis walk with walkers or canes. Imperfect, but still better than a chair.

Re:Lifestyle (1)

rcp (12077) | more than 3 years ago | (#34317200)

It's debatable that walking is better than a chair, but the able-bodied often blindly assume that walking must be so.

I'm partially paralysed due to a spinal cord injury, but can walk with a walker and a leg brace. When walking, I can go about 200 metres before my leg nerves/muscles are too weak to continue, and I need to take a break. That 200 metres will take me about 15 minutes - I've had double-leg-amputee Grannies speeding past me. During that time I can't carry anything unless it's very light and I can stuff it into a backpack.

Contrast this with my wheelchair, In which I can go faster than walking pace, can go for miles, and can carry heavier items in a backpack, and can carry items in my lap - either on their own, or in a tray. I can't clear the dining table while walking, but can with the chair. I can't go to the store with the walker.

Standing up - say to get stuff out of the cupboards - is a great, truly useful skill. Walking with compromised legs nerves, though, takes a another leap in level of ability before it beats a wheelchair.

Re:Lifestyle (1)

Penguinshit (591885) | more than 3 years ago | (#34313778)

Walking requires a good deal of non-locomotive muscle action for balance, coordination of which must be recomputed multiple times per second. this makes a "walking computer" a bit bigger than can fit in a spinal implant. An exoskeletal system for paraplegics is actually in clinical trial.

Electric wheelchairs require amperage on the scale of a car engine. No way in hell a human powered generator is putting out that current.

I am a quad so I have experience with wheelchairs and locomotive muscle issues.

Re:Lifestyle (1)

sjames (1099) | more than 3 years ago | (#34314582)

It's one thing to move the legs in a well defined motion when you can strap your feet on to the pedals. It's quite another to add a balance mechanism and control the legs well enough to stay upright. That may one day happen, but I doubt it would be a feature in the 1.0 version.

Re:Lifestyle (1)

rcp (12077) | more than 3 years ago | (#34317408)

You asked, so here's why this won't work:

"fit a pedal-powered generator". Where do those pedals fit? Basically down and in front. Take a look at some recumbent bicycle designs - preferably the more upright ones. Take a look at some wheelchair designs - standard legs out in front hospital-style, and some more active ones like tilite.com. Your pedal chain rings and crank-arms are going to have to fit somewhere very clever indeed to avoid them or the legs sticking out in front in a very awkward manner. Even standard hospital-style wheelchairs are a PITA to maneuver about due to the legs banging into everything, by adding the ability to pedal, you've just made that PITA far, far worse.

Leg strength - You're asking the compromised legs of someone who needs a wheelchair to produce power equivalent to an able-bodied person. That's not going to happen for a long, long time while atrophied muscles get stronger. You device needs to be enjoyable enough during that time, or human natures says, it will be abandoned.

Generating power - Most electric bicycles are just power assist for climbing hills. I don't think full-power generation is currently practical.

Power wheelchairs are hardly restricted to slow short-range trundling. They're 24-volt, and can reach speeds of at least 25km/h have ranges than can be extended by greater battery capacity, up to at least 30km. (Speed and range maximums may be higher - numbers are just from some individuals I know).

Re:Lifestyle (1)

Gordonjcp (186804) | more than 3 years ago | (#34319072)

Where do those pedals fit?

A one-way clutch would let the pedals fold back to be "alongside" each other - think clock hands at 12 o'clock, as opposed to 6 o'clock when pedalling normally. With the pedals "folded" they would be about right for the normal footrests. A screw jack similar to the ones used to adjust the seat back angle in certain chairs would be able to extend the arm with the "bottom bracket" out to a more comfortable pedalling position. There wouldn't be a chain, and where the chain ring is would be a generator similar to the "brake disc alternators" popular in the homebrew wind turbine scene. Potentially this could have a small epicyclic gearbox to bring the slow pedal speed up to something more suitable for the generator - think Sturmey-Archer gearbox.

Leg strength

No argument from me on this one - it will take time to get used to pedalling, and regain muscle strength. Some people won't like it. It's not for them.

I don't think full-power generation is currently practical.

It must be, because it's currently possible to pedal a bicycle, and it's currently possible to power a wheelchair by batteries. You're just replacing a chain drive with an electrical one.

Still not convinced? Okay, scrap the generator and motors, and have the pedals drive a hydraulic pump with hydraulic motors to power the wheels. This is considerably less practical but would have much less loss than an electrical system. Could you make a bicycle powered by an electric motor and a generator instead of a chain drive? It has already been done with hydraulics.

As for speed, I know about that - I wired up both motors of a scrap electric wheelchair to both (fairly flat) 12V batteries without the speed controller. I wasn't able to catch it until it took off up a steep hill and eventually ran up against a tree. Good job it was well away from other people and vehicles - it must have been doing about 30mph at one point!

Can it help Obama govern? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34312312)

It's sad that of the two main Dem candidates in 2008, Hillary Clinton is the one with the balls.

Sounds like a great idea (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#34312586)

Now can we get spine implants for all of Congress?

SCS for Chronic pain (5, Interesting)

Talsin (164230) | more than 3 years ago | (#34313384)

I currently have an ANS spinal cord stimulator implanted for chronic pain and cannot imagine life without it. For three years before the implant I was on enough methadone and dilaudid to to not only knock a horse out but take most of the farm along with it. My device is about the size of half a pack of cigarettes and is implanted above my right hip. The cable runs up right between my shoulder blades and enters my spine there.

The size and placement of the device does not concern me much but something smaller would be welcome. The batteries are rechargeable with an induction antennae and designed to last about 10 years. I can only hope that by the time I have to think about a replacement something like the devices in this article will be available.

8 surgeries and countless procedures. Drugs of all types with all the side effects and problems that come with them. And in the end a tiny trickle of electric current gives me vastly more relief than anything. I can walk, hold my children and work a normal day again.

Re:SCS for Chronic pain (1)

RexDevious (321791) | more than 3 years ago | (#34396498)

Hey, I just went through the trial of one those myself. So far, I haven't opted for the permanent version you have because:
1. The area which needs the parathesia is on the way to my arms, so using it makes it impossible to use them for programming (my job) or music (my dream).
2. The only one who think it's a good idea is my insurance company. Every doctor who's treated me says, and has proven, that my injury can be corrected with simple PT - though for quite a bit longer than my current insurance policy allows.

If by the time I get a new insurance plan which this time, no foolin', really does cover PT as medically necessary (as opposed to "Medically Necessary" which is apparently totally different), I'll find out of PT alone can actually get me to a point where I can live without the Keith-Richards-Calibre pain medication they have me on now. If not, I'll have to wait another year to get a SCS.

I could hedge my bets and have them install the thing now while it'd be free to me, but I don't know how much maintence those things require over the first year. If I switch plans, the maintenance wouldn't be covered.

May I ask how many times you had to go back for repositioning, repairs, and reprogramming the first year you had it?

Exercise? (1)

preflex (1840068) | more than 3 years ago | (#34315984)

This is slashdot! Some of us paralyzed ourselves intentionally just to avoid exercise, you insensitive clod!

Re:Exercise? (1)

tehcyder (746570) | more than 3 years ago | (#34316526)

Just because a remark is totally inappropriate and incredibly tasteless in context doesn't make it funny.

ALS Victims (1)

BJ_Covert_Action (1499847) | more than 3 years ago | (#34319988)

I'm not entirely sure if this applies or not, but I wonder how a product like this would work with folks who have ALS [wikipedia.org]. I know that with that particular condition something goes funny with certain proteins in the spine which restricts communication between the spine and motor neurons (or something like that). The result is that the body degrades and muscles atrophy from the inability to use them. This is the same disease that affects Stephen Hawking. Anyways, I wonder if a chip like this could allow utilization of multiple muscles despite the defunct motor neuron connections. That would be really cool if this could be used to exercise the breathing muscles so that ALS patients didn't have to resort to a ventilator anymore.
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