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U of A-developed micro-implant could restore spinal function in patients dealing with paralysis

An implant developed at the University of Alberta could be the next step in helping people with spinal cord injuries walk again.
An implant developed at the University of Alberta could be the next step in helping people with spinal cord injuries walk again. Global News

Research being done at the University of Alberta could pave the way for restoring movement in patients with spinal cord injuries.

The research involves extensive mapping of the spinal cord and using a wire thinner than a human hair which can reach deep inside the spine and send electrical signals.

“We’re super excited about this because it’s giving hope,” said Dr. Vivian Mushahwar, who specializes in biomedical engineering.

Mushahwar led a team of U of A researchers in mapping out which parts of the spinal cord trigger the hip, knees, ankles and toes — along with the areas that put movements together.

“There’s this very small region, about five centimetres right at the base of the back, that contains the majority of those neural networks involved in walking,” Mushahwar said.

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The implant the researchers have developed then stimulates the specific areas that they’ve mapped — which would essentially reactivate the networks.

READ MORE: Calgary surgeon undergoes experimental spinal surgery after freak accident

So far, they’ve been working with the implant on animals only, but hope to move towards clinical trials in humans within five years.

Dr. Vivian Mushahwar has been leading the spinal mapping research being done at the U of A.
Dr. Vivian Mushahwar has been leading the spinal mapping research being done at the U of A. Global News

The concept is similar to a surgery that Humboldt Broncos player Ryan Straschnitzki recently went through in Thailand, known as epidural stimulation.

In Straschnitzki’s surgery, doctors implanted electrodes over his spinal cord that are then activated with a stimulator. One week later, doctors also injected stem cells above and below the injury.

Since that surgery, the 20-year-old has been able to straighten his leg and walk with the use of a wheeled machine.

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READ MORE: Humboldt Broncos bus crash survivor takes first steps after epidural stimulation implant

But because the U of A’s implant actually goes right into the spinal cord, the researchers are confident human users could walk up to a kilometre if the surgery is successful, which is 10 times farther than experts believe a patient could after the epidural stimulation implant.

“It seems like this micro-implant is activating those networks in a natural manner,” Mushahwar said. “We’re at the edge of merging the human and the machine.

“Imagine the future — a person just thinks and commands are transmitted to the spinal cord. People stand up and walk. This is the dream.”

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The wire implant is so thin it is only visible as a small glisten by Global News ENG cameras.
The wire implant is so thin it is only visible as a small glisten by Global News ENG cameras. Global News