Solicitor and former NHS neurophysiotherapist Angie Maxwell writes on the breakthrough giving hope to victims of spinal injury.

A world first was achieved today, giving hope to the estimated 40,000 people in the UK suffering from paralysis following a spinal cord injury. Following an extensive 'proof of concept' study, a 26-year-old American man has been able to walk using the power of modern technology to interpret the signals from his brain. So what is this treatment, and how does it work? 

Neural Bypass – the technology

Unlike other tissues in the body, the spinal cord cannot regenerate when it is damaged. Severing the spinal cord, therefore, usually leads to irreversible paralysis.

In this ground-breaking new technique, electrical signals to walk are captured from the brain and sent directly to the muscles, bypassing the damaged spinal cord and allowing the patient to walk. 

The patient wears a cap on his head which has a built-in electroencephalogram (EEG), a device that monitors brainwaves. The brainwaves are transmitted using a Bluetooth connection to a computer, which decodes the patterns and transmits them to a microcontroller in a belt worn around the waist. The microcontroller activates the electrical impulses that control and stimulate the leg muscles.

This technique enabled a paralysed patient to take his first steps in five years. 

Next steps

In 2014, similar technology allowed a patient who was paralysed from the neck down to move his hand; there have been other reported breakthroughs in treating spinal injury, including a technique in which regenerative cells are introduced into the spinal cord. In the light of such extraordinary advances, what does the future hold? 

It is hoped that the further development of the Neural Bypass programme will eventually lead to the introduction of less cumbersome, more sophisticated equipment.

Suggestions have been made by the co-author of the study, Dr Zoran Nenadic from the University of California at Irvine, that the cap transmitter could be replaced by hidden implants.

Spinal injury and the future

Further research is needed to determine whether this technology is likely to be the answer for many spinally injured patients. As spinal injury solicitors, we help people injured in negligent accidents to claim the compensation they need to rebuild their lives, and a large part of our work includes looking to the future – how new developments can change the lives of paralysed and injured people.

Neural Bypass is one of the most exciting breakthroughs yet, and it is definitely a step in the right direction.