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Computer makes paralysed stroke victims move

A previously paralysed hand has been made to grip objects again in a breakthrough from scientists at the University of Newcastle.

A research team from the university experimented on monkeys whose hands were paralysed, are were able to use ‘the power of thought’ to enable the animals to move their hands again.

When paralysed, the brain tries to send a signal to move the frozen limbs but is blocked by the damage to the nerves, brain or spinal cord. In the case of a stroke, the brain is most likely to be affected, and limited mobility is a common issue among stroke survivors. Scientists have found a way of bypassing the blockage by capturing the brain’s signal ‘asking’ the limb to move using electrodes, decoding it in a computer, and then sending it on using other electrodes attached to the muscle, so they move.

The research team applied the technique to the monkeys, giving them a lever to pull despite being given a drug that temporarily paralysed their hands. It is hoped that decoding other signals will make other movements possible for stroke patients in the near future, with actions such as pinching a key to put in a lock, being able to button clothes or brushing teeth being a possibility for stroke victims as soon as in five years time.

Dr Andrew Jackson, principle researcher, said “Much of the technology we used for this is already being used separately in patients today and has been proven to work. We just need to bring it all together. I think within five years we could have an implant ready for people. There are still some technical challenges, as with any new technology, but we are making good progress.”

The medical journal Frontiers in Neuroscience reported that eventually, it may even be possible to send signals back to the brain, which could allow paralysed hands to feel hear, cold and pressure.

Dr Shamim Quadir, of the Stroke Association, said many patients are partially paralysed. He added that, “By bridging damaged parts of the brain, we hope more people will be able to make their best possible recovery from the devastating effects of stroke.”

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