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Brain Controls Paralyzed Muscles

A new system decodes brain signals from the motor cortex of monkeys and translates them into basic arm movements, despite temporary paralysis.

Scientists at Northwestern University have developed a device that allows monkeys to reach out and grab a ball, even though they cannot feel some of their arm muscles. A panel of electrodes implanted in the monkeys’ brains decodes commands from the motor cortex (the region that controls movements), while electrodes in their arms directly stimulate the appropriate muscles.

This electronic middle-man, known as functional electrical stimulation (FES), bypasses the spinal cord, and allows the monkeys to perform simple tasks despite their paralyzed muscles, whose connections to the brain have been temporarily disabled. Its inventors, who published their findings today (April 18) in Nature, hope that a similar system could help people with spinal cord injuries to regain control of their hands, giving them more independence in their daily lives.

“[It’s the] first step toward showing how FES and brain-decoding can be linked,” said neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the research.

FES is not a new idea. Existing systems can already restore movements to paralyzed limbs by directly stimulating muscles. But all of these are controlled by moving parts of the limb that are still active. A shrug of the shoulder, for example, might trigger a specific pre-programmed movement in a paralyzed hand. “The critical difference is that we’re taking the control signals from the brain,” said neurophysiologist Lee Miller of Northwestern University, who led the new study.

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