Using a computerized connector between the brain and muscles in the body, scientists have been able to restore movement to paralyzed limbs. A group of neuroscientists report in Nature today that they used a brain-computer interface to join the motor cortex of an ape to the muscles in its wrist. After scientists paralyzed the ape's arm temporarily, it was still able to make its wrist move my sending electrical impulses directly from its brain to the muscles, bypassing the damaged nerves in between. The study has profound implications for people whose nerves have been severed or damaged, leaving them paralyzed.
What is particularly interesting about this research is that it shows the versatility of the motor cortex when combined with a brain-computer interface (BCI). Previous research showed that people could learn to move a cursor on screen by linking to specific areas of the motor cortex. This new study showed that any area of the motor cortex could be "repurposed" to activate muscles in the body via BCI.
"Until now, brain-computer interfaces were designed to decode the activity of neurons known to be associated with movement of specific body parts. Here, the researchers discovered that any motor cortex cell, regardless of whether it had been previously associated with wrist movement, was capable of stimulating muscle activity. This finding greatly expands the potential number of neurons that could control signals for brain-computer interfaces and also illustrates the flexibility of the motor cortex."
Human implementations for the technology are at least a decade away, but this discovery could be a game-changer for dealing with paralysis. One possibility would be to connect the motor cortex with an area of the spine below an injury. Signals would be re-routed around the damaged spinal cord, and could allow the brain to regain control of the paralyzed body parts affected by the injury.