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Fighting Paralysis With Electricity

samzenpus posted about 6 months ago | from the jolt-to-the-system dept.

Medicine 56

the_newsbeagle writes "In spinal cord injuries, the brain's commands can't reach the lower body — so in a ground-breaking experiment at the University of Louisville, researchers are providing artificial commands via electrodes implanted in the spine. The first paralyzed people to try out the tech have already been able to stand on their own, and have regained some bowel and sexual function. A video that accompanies the article also shows paralyzed rats that were able to walk again with this kind of electrical stimulation."

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56 comments

Shocking news (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45229769)

really

For Great Justice (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45230167)

"In spinal cord injuries, the brain's commands can't reach the lower body — so in a ground-breaking experiment at the University of Louisville, researchers are providing artificial commands via electrodes implanted in the spine. The first paralyzed people to try out the tech have already been able to stand on their own, and have regained some bowel and sexual function.

I pray that somewhere out there, a poor paralyzed Japanese girl is finally getting this technology.

You know, just so that after it's implanted, she can exclaim, "Onii-chan, my hips are moving on their own!"

Re:For Great Justice (1)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 6 months ago | (#45235331)

Actually, the whole thing to me sounds more like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Electrodes? Check. Controlling people? Check. Now just find a suitable paralyzed lookalike of Vampira, and it will all be just spiffy.

Funny ... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45229793)

When I use my stun gun it causes temporary paralysis most of the time. But if I use it on some drunk who's passed out it seems to encourage movement.

Science is confusing and electricity is magic.

So they are moving up the wiring eh? (3, Interesting)

bobbied (2522392) | about 6 months ago | (#45229797)

In crude ways we've been able to do this for decades. I've seen video a guy who was unable to move from the chest down climb stairs using his own legs. It was from back in the 80's. Wasn't capable of any kind of fine motor control and it would be easy to knock him over, but between the braces and the electrodes that where implanted it worked. I guess they are able to move up the circuit to the spine and implant electrodes there? So? How's this help very much?

Now if you can transfer signals from above the damaged spine to below, THAT would be something to see.

Re:So they are moving up the wiring eh? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45230327)

Yeah, but these ones can have sex! Take that 80's guy.

I'm guessing you didn't RTFA (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45230699)

What's new is the use of machine-learning software to figure out the combination of inputs much faster than could ever be done with trial and error, allowing for far more fine-grained signaling.

They've also figured out that you don't need to blast high currents down the nerves to get the muscles to move and that that in fact hinders the ability of the spine to manage feedback and autonomous control on its own.

Captcha: Instruct

Re:So they are moving up the wiring eh? (3, Informative)

sjames (1099) | about 6 months ago | (#45231265)

The spinal cord is much more than a mere conduit. By moving the stimulation up, you get the advantage of using the low level processing ability of the spinal cord. That means automatic compensation for shifting weight. For example, if someone puts something in your outstretched hand, the added tension in the tendons signals the spinal cord to increase muscle contraction to compensate so your hand doesn't drop. It seems to also have more complex functions to coordinate muscle groups.

In addition, the spinal cord has access to the sensory nerves. The patient can't feel foot pressure, but the spinal cord can process it in the act of stepping.

This is High School Biology all over again! (1, Funny)

Virtucon (127420) | about 6 months ago | (#45229817)

We used to do this with 9V batteries in High School Biology. Of course we used dead frogs but it was the same thing. ...

Reminds me of (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45229827)

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/M.A.N.T.I.S.

Great! (2, Funny)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about 6 months ago | (#45229841)

Another couple of decades and they'll 'discover' that electrical stimulation of nerve pathways with acupuncture needles can 'restore' nerve pathways to functionning.

I'm certainly glad I can urinate easily and stand on my right leg without electrodes.

Electrical stimulation to nerve regeneration? (1)

Firethorn (177587) | about 6 months ago | (#45231679)

That's already been known since like the '80s. My grandfather has spinal damage from both an accident and polio. He's been using a electrostimulation machine for decades, slowly increasing/restoring function in his legs.

The trick would be something that works about 10X faster so you could 'finish' in a couple decades rather than it being essentially for life....

Re:Electrical stimulation to nerve regeneration? (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about 6 months ago | (#45239111)

Add some marijuana to the mix. Some cbd's are analagous to the chemicals that precede nerve formation, sort of like scouts, plus all the nerve protection factors. Then add some yoga or tai chi, both teach you where your nerves are, where they connect to, and how to 'follow' them with your inner senses. Visualization is actually very important for nerve regeneration. They also both help with correcting posture. Anybody who has had any paralysis will develop muscular compensations elsewhere, so one has to relearn not only how to move the paralysed body part but how to move the non-paralysed part correctly.

The important part of course is not to take some mj and then veg out, it's to use it and then immediately physio with visualization. Thankfully, in the past couple of years there's been a lot of development in high cbd/low thc strains so you can get the benefits without being all muddle-headed.

Took me about 5 years, and I still sometimes forget, out of habit, to move the muscles that I can now move, and they still get tired before the day is over, but every day brings more strength, coordination, ease and grace of motion.

Re:Electrical stimulation to nerve regeneration? (1)

Firethorn (177587) | about 6 months ago | (#45242897)

First, I'm not going to intrude into grandpa's medical situation, and I'm certainly not going to recommend a currently illegal drug on the basis of an internet post.

Second, well, typical Yoga and Tai Chi are far beyond my grandfather's ability. Merely standing is something of a challange for him while wearing supports.

Maybe if this stuff had been available 40+ years ago when he was injured...

Re:Electrical stimulation to nerve regeneration? (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about 6 months ago | (#45243119)

You don't need to be able to stand to do yoga or taichi. It is not the physical gymnastics the USA has led everybody to believe.

And if you don't care enough about your grandpa to research a bit or even suggest he research a bit...

Re:Electrical stimulation to nerve regeneration? (1)

Firethorn (177587) | about 6 months ago | (#45243141)

And if you don't care enough about your grandpa to research a bit or even suggest he research a bit...

Oh, I care. I've done a lot of research, actually. I just know that Gramps is already being seen by a number of competent doctors(and he's being taken care of by his daughter that is a nurse) and I'm nowhere near enough(8 time zones away) to make an adequate judgement at this time. I also know my grandfather(obstinate), the local law enforcement situation(not favorable), etc... It's a balancing act. I'm not going to recommend some action without at least a peer-reviewed study that comes close, and convinces me that the positives outweigh the risks. Sadly, at this point I doubt a study on the effects of THC on spinal nerves damaged by polio is going to come out.

He already does physical therapy that's very close to what 'yoga' he'd be able to do, so that's taken care of, which is why I said 'typical'. Then there's all the possible interactions with all the other medications that he takes for various conditions.

Re:Electrical stimulation to nerve regeneration? (1)

Jmc23 (2353706) | about 6 months ago | (#45244383)

Yeah, unfortunately probably won't see a study like that for a while as we still suffer the FUD of 80 years ago. Also, it's not the THC that matters, it's the CBD's. That's why the US government 'patented' CBD's but really only allows medical studies to be done on what is basically hemp sprayed with THC (yay war on drugs!).

If your grandpa's damage was done by polio itself it might also respond differently than the damage done by the polio vaccine (very small percentage, yay! I won something) which is usually uni-lateral, slower degeneration, and cyclical (nerves recover to some degree but can be easily 'burnt out' by too much activity).

Anyways, food for thought. Hope your grandpa continues to improve!

must resist urge! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45229855)

must resist urge to make a joke referencing pokemon!

Oblig. (5, Funny)

SeaFox (739806) | about 6 months ago | (#45229875)

The first paralyzed people to try out the tech have already been able to stand on their own, and have regained some bowel and sexual function.

Gives new meaning to the phrase "getting turned on".

Re:Oblig. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45230479)

makes me wonder what commands they have to send to do that......

This has been done since the 1980s (2)

themushroom (197365) | about 6 months ago | (#45229917)

I recall when I was in high school watching video of people with similar setups, where electrodes were going to the muscles or spine, and little jolts would make the legs move. It was very jerky and reportedly very draining to the person (since every motion was a sudden thrust).

Re: This has been done since the 1980s (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45233523)

"...and reportedly very draining to the person (since every motion was a sudden thrust)."

But quite satisfying to the other person!

Oh wait, you weren't referring to the sexual function thing were you? Oops.

Save money, call the police (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45229971)

The police should infiltrate hospitals and taze all those indolent bastards in comas. I always get the idea that people in comas are threatening me in morse code, with their devious little eye movements.

Proud to see stuff like this... (5, Interesting)

acidradio (659704) | about 6 months ago | (#45230371)

Kind of off-topic but I love seeing stuff like this hit the news. I do IT work at Medtronic. Nothing related to the devices but rather supporting the software that the engineers, scientists, physicians, designers and factory workers use to make these devices. Its an interesting feeling that in the end my work is a little tiny piece of making stuff like this happen. Morally and emotionally I feel great going to a job at a company like this. Here a device like this is helping this man stand and eventually walk again! My prior jobs were all IT jobs in really dismal, "selfish" industries - banking, credit cards, health insurance. Nothing I did helped make the world a better place. The work I did made a CEO richer and that was about it. The companies were built on "How can we cheapen this so we make more money on it." The reason I mention this is I see a lot of IT people who go to their job and feel something missing or don't feel like they contribute to the greater good. I felt that same way for a long time. Then by luck I got in there. I think a lot of us have a moral, emotional, spiritual (or all of the above) compass and this is the kind of stuff that fulfills that.

Re:Proud to see stuff like this... (1)

JasoninKS (1783390) | about 6 months ago | (#45230589)

I had the same feeling back when I was an IT guy (and the only one actually) at a K-12 school district. It was very fulfilling to know I was doing my part in someone's education. And you're right, those are the best jobs to have.

That said, this really is very incredible stuff. There have been versions of things like this before, but that they can get more fine control now is amazing. And that other "normal" body functions come as a "side effect" is great! I'm interested to see how this evolves over the next few years as more research is done.

Re:Proud to see stuff like this... (1, Insightful)

roman_mir (125474) | about 6 months ago | (#45230827)

Nothing I did helped make the world a better place. The work I did made a CEO richer and that was about it. The companies were built on "How can we cheapen this so we make more money on it."

- this comes from fundamental misunderstanding of what businesses that people use in their every day lives do. You are saying banking, insurance, credit card companies are not helping making a world a better place? So people shouldn't be able to pool risk, pool resources, be able to transact online or IRL with credit cards, being able to pay for things, invest in things that eventually can translate to other businesses existing (for example a niche business of attempting to fix a spinal cord injury that really will only benefit a tiny proportion of the population as opposed to something like a credit card company, a bank or an insurance provider, that allow orders of magnitude more people to do things they couldn't really do otherwise without those businesses)?

Tell you what, most people are not going to need a spinal cord surgery, but most people do need to be able to pay for their electrical and gas bill online so that their house doesn't go dark and cold in a winter night, guess what is more important and less selfish.

Re:Proud to see stuff like this... (1)

sjames (1099) | about 6 months ago | (#45231997)

Let's just say those have a high rip-off to benefit ratio.

I would rather just transfer electronic money securely to pay my bills and leave the bank out of it. That won't happen as long as banks buy politicians.

Re:Proud to see stuff like this... (1)

crywalt (2426042) | about 6 months ago | (#45231141)

That guy who is trying to convince you that banks really help people? To heck with him. I worked for a major bank for about a year in IT. You know what I did? Built mini-websites to facilitate wealthy people's getting free stuff. Seriously. In order to keep these multi-million-dollar clients, the bank would have to give them freebies -- tickets to sporting events and such -- the new stadiums for the Giants, the Yankees, and the Mets were all built, not because the old facilities were too small or worn out or anything, but simply because the team owners wanted more luxury boxes and suites they could sell tickets for -- and my entire job consisted of supporting the reps and their distribution of the goodies. Looking back, that may have been the most blatant of my worthless IT jobs, but most of them have been pretty much like that. (And don't even get me started on the couple of months I worked for a guy who turned out to be a spammer. Obviously I quit as soon as I figured it out.) So I'm thrilled to hear that someone out there in IT is doing something worthwhile. Huzzah!

Re:Proud to see stuff like this... (3, Interesting)

Common Joe (2807741) | about 6 months ago | (#45231569)

Glad you work at Medtronic. Glad I saw this article.

My best friend became a paraplegic last year. He's my age so it really struck home. I was thrilled when he asked me last weekend to write him a program for Android to help out with his daily habits. That program will have more meaning to me than any other program I've written. I was so excited after talking with him that I woke up at 3 AM the next morning and wrote semi-formal requirements for the program that he could approve. It may take me a while to successfully squeeze in the required time to learn Android programming (I've never done it before) and the time to write and debug the actual program, but I'm determined to do it. (What he wants requires a little tricky programming, but it's simple enough. And yes, of course it will be open source and I'll publish the code.)

Keep up the good work. I'm hoping to work for a company that gives me fulfillment soon too. (It's a goal.)

Very sadly related (1)

ThatsNotPudding (1045640) | about 6 months ago | (#45232569)

I do IT work at Medtronic... My prior jobs were all IT jobs in really dismal, "selfish" industries - banking, credit cards, health insurance. Nothing I did helped make the world a better place.The work I did made a CEO richer and that was about it. The companies were built on "How can we cheapen this so we make more money on it."

http://www.startribune.com/business/208307771.html [startribune.com]

Re:Very sadly related (1)

Aerokii (1001189) | about 6 months ago | (#45232865)

I was offered a contract to work as a verification engineer for them for 6 weeks, starting about 6 weeks before the layoff announcement. They told me at the time that if "you work really hard and show that you know what you're doing, we'll fight to keep you on full time!"

Utter load of crap. Thankfully another company in the area offered me full time work, so I was able to avoid the inevitable let down I would have encountered. That being said, I still respect what Medtronic does, and the people I spoke with were passionate about helping people. I'm glad to still work in the same industry, and wish we could get projects more in line with what's in this article- it would be amazing to help people in such a way.

Ground-breaking? To who? (0)

BitZtream (692029) | about 6 months ago | (#45230407)

Seriously, they're replacing the bodies built in wiring with man made wiring ... this isn't even a little bit new, its been done experimentally for most of my life and functionally for a while.

The only thing ground breaking is that some moron thinks this is ground breaking ... but I guess thats not really ground breaking either.

How is it that so many stories get posted to slashdot about 'new' shit that's been around for 30 freaking years?

Don't Cross the Wires (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45230751)

Or somebody is going to want to shit every time he gets horny.

Patch Chord? (1)

theshowmecanuck (703852) | about 6 months ago | (#45230885)

So I have to ask the obvious, but why can't they just run a patch chord between the ends of the nerve fibres that are cut? The question is so obvious that I would be surprised if it hasn't already been tried, but I have never heard of it. Instead of using a device to provide the 'high level instructions', can't they just use some really fine conductor to join up the cut nerves from the brain, and allow our built in controller at the top of our spine to run (and feel) things. i.e. our brain. I'm curious why this wouldn't work, and what kind of trials may have been done in this regard.

Re:Patch Chord? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45231741)

The question is so obvious that I'm clearly missing something and it's obviously much more difficult than someone without a degree in neuroscience would think

FTFY.

Re:Patch Chord? (2)

sjames (1099) | about 6 months ago | (#45232051)

There's a lot of them and they are really tiny. We have no idea how to form a proper synapse between a conductor and a nerve cell. We don't even know how to tell which one connected where. It's amazing that the current state of the art works at all really.

Re:Patch Chord? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45233931)

Because nerves aren't electrical. They're chemical.

In order to do this, you'd need a device at the one nerve ending to detect the chemical nerve pulse, then generate an electrical signal down the patch chord. Then on the other end you'd need another device that, when it receives electricity, it releases a chemical signal.

Now lest you think THAT is easy, note that the amount of neurons firing and the frequency they fire at can generate a different mechanical response by the muscles at the far end. So in order to replicate something approaching normal functionality of the muscles on either end of the break, you'd probably need thousands of these devices on either end of the break.

Yes, this might one day be possible. It's just not a simple matter of attaching really fine wires.

Re:Patch Chord? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45237353)

So I have to ask the obvious, but why can't they just run a patch chord between the ends of the nerve fibres that are cut?

I hope it woudn't be a B chord, that's hard to hit on a guitar.

Re:Patch Chord? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45245143)

So I have to ask the obvious, but why can't they just run a patch chord between the ends of the nerve fibres that are cut? The question is so obvious that I would be surprised if it hasn't already been tried, but I have never heard of it

The spinal cord does a whole lot more than just merely pass electrons.

Your question could be rephrased as "Why can't we just replace all of our network switches, routers, and all of the servers with some cheap cat-5 patch cables?"

The difference between some wires, and a server containing a multitude of parts consisting of many billions of transistors working together for very specific, complex, and fast computation isn't actually all that much of an exaggeration when comparing patch wires and the spinal column either.

Your spinal cord provides quite a lot of processing at a level that isn't immediately obvious (assuming good health of course)
It processes many reflexes, as well as can cause direct action in response to stimulus in pretty complex ways. It provides your balance, letting you walk up an incline without falling over, and making your body adjust force strength output when the environment changes.

Have you ever carried a tray and had someone put something else on the tray while you were holding it? The spinal cord is what kept your hand steady, level, and holding the tray.
We all should be familiar with the reaction when getting burned, and suddenly jerking the unfortunate body part away to prevent major damage from being done.

Other than being informed of those things happening, the brain itself doesn't need much involvement in any of those actions (sometimes none at all)

The cord also contains parts that are basically made of the same neurons as the brain itself, and while it processes different things, it does so similarly and with the same capability and power as the neurons that make up the brain posses.

While it should be obvious to any geek why a simple wire or even cable is not even in the same class as a server let alone able to replace it, the spinal cord is so powerful and good at what it does that it's really easy to under appreciated and not notice the complexity involved.

Christopher Reeve's dream may be coming true (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45230965)

A pity he didn't live to see it

Wrong, electricty causes paralysis (0)

Required Snark (1702878) | about 6 months ago | (#45231049)

You are sitting in front of your computer reading this by using electricity, and you are effectively paralyzed from the hips down.

Re:Wrong, electricty causes paralysis (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45231143)

Right! Electric type attacks do this too. They should just use paralyze heal.

Rats (1)

interkin3tic (1469267) | about 6 months ago | (#45234165)

For anyone who is wondering what is taking so long with curing paralysis, one complication is that mouse and rat models aren't super great. Their spinal cords recover to some degree on their own. Biologists are limited to measuring increased recovery rates [nih.gov]. Obviously, a spinal cord that is healing itself is quite different from a spinal cord which is not. Young children seem to have some capacity to regenerate neurons of the spinal cord (though my main source there is a friend who worked on spinal cord regeneration, and this was over beers.) Obviously, no one has extensively tested that. I'm guessing that kids getting out of wheelchairs will happen before adults getting out of wheelchairs.

There's also promising work in preventing a lot of damage within hours of the initial injury. If you can prevent glial scarring, it seems you'll have a much better shot of recovering. However, that again isn't useful to people who are already paralyzed.

Anyway, research is moving fast enough to be excited about, but still slower than one would prefer.

Sign me up! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 6 months ago | (#45234265)

As a paraplegic I would pay anything just to be able to control my bowels again. Being able to jerk off again would be nice, too.

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