Implant to give paralysed people the ability to move offers hope for people with epilepsy
A brain implant the size of a paper-clip might one day help paralysed people regain the ability to use their arms and legs via a wireless connection that will transmit their thoughts to an exoskeleton.
Although it is not the first technology to allow paralysed people to operate mechanical limbs with signals from their brain, the implant is revolutionary because it is minimally invasive and totally wireless.
The device could have implications for a wide range of neurological disorders if it works, for example, an implant in people with epilepsy could record brain activity and potentially predict an oncoming seizure.
The device could provide a less-invasive alternative to deep brain stimulation, a process wherein doctors implant electrodes deep inside the brain to treat a range of disorders including Parkinson's disease, severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The matchstick-sized implant is called a stentrode, and is made from nitinol, an alloy commonly used in spectacle frames and to underwire bras, according to a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
"It's really a new method for getting brain data out of the brain without performing brain surgery," Dr Thomas Oxley, a neurologist at the University of Melbourne who designed the device, told CBC News.
"Part of the reason that brain-machine interfaces have not been successful to this point is because they get rejected by the body, and the reason they get rejected is because they all require direct implantation into the brain. And to do that you have to take off the skull — you have to perform a craniotomy."
The new technology — developed by a team scientists from the University of Melbourne— is implanted in a blood vessel next to the motor cortex, the region of the brain involved in the planning, control and execution of voluntary movements. The stentrode eliminates the need for complex surgery.
The researchers were inspired by advancements in cardiac medicine that allow pacemakers to be inserted via blood vessels, rather than through open-heart surgery.
Once the implant is safely nestled near the motor cortex, it will theoretically be able to pick up signals from the brain and transmit them to an exoskeleton, allowing a patient to move their limbs with the power of their own thoughts.
The stentrode has already proven safe and painless in tests on sheep. The researchers hope to begin human trials in 2017 and to bring the implant to market by 2022.