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Spinal Cord 'Wraparound' Device Could Help Treat Paralysis
  • Posted May 9, 2024

Spinal Cord 'Wraparound' Device Could Help Treat Paralysis

A tiny, flexible device that wraps around the spinal cord could be a breakthrough in the treatment of spinal injuries.

The device, developed by a University of Cambridge team, can record 360-degree information and provide a complete picture of spinal cord activity, researchers report in the journal Science Advances.

The device also can stimulate limb movement and bypass complete spinal cord injuries, tests in live animals and human cadavers showed.

That means the device has the capacity to restore communication between the brain and spinal cord that's been lost or damaged, researchers said.

“The spinal cord is like a highway, carrying information in the form of nerve impulses to and from the brain,” research co-leader George Malliaras, a professor of technology at the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering, said in a news release. “Damage to the spinal cord causes that traffic to be interrupted, resulting in profound disability, including irreversible loss of sensory and motor functions.”

Current approaches to restoring that nervous system highway involve piercing the spinal cord with electrodes and placing implants in the brain, both of which are high-risk surgeries, researchers said.

The new wraparound device could lead to treatments for spinal injuries without the need for brain surgery, a far safer option for patients.

For example, the ability to monitor the signals running back and forth along the spinal cord could dramatically aid development of better treatments for spinal injuries, and could help doctors monitor the spinal cord during surgery.

The device involves very thin, high-resolution implants wrapped around the entire spinal cord, providing for the first time a safe 360-degree view of the spine.

“Most technologies for monitoring or stimulating the spinal cord only interact with motor neurons along the back, or dorsal, part of the spinal cord,” said co-lead researcher Dr. Damiano Barone, a clinical lecturer in neursurgery at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. “These approaches can only reach between 20% and 30% of the spine, so you're getting an incomplete picture.”

The devices are just a few millionths of a meter thick, and require minimal power to function, researchers said.

The thinness of the device means it can record signals without doing any damage to the nerves, since it doesn't penetrate the spinal cord itself, researchers said.

“It was a difficult process, because we haven't made spinal implants in this way before, and it wasn't clear that we could safely and successfully place them around the spine,” Malliaras said. “But because of recent advances in both engineering and neurosurgery, the planets have aligned and we've made major progress in this important area.”

Tests in lab rats showed that the device could stimulate limb movement with a reaction time very close to normal human reflexes.

This shows brain implants might not be necessary to restore movement in people with spinal cord injuries, researchers said – just something like this device to restore the back-and-forth communication.

“If someone has a spinal injury, their brain is fine, but it's the connection that's been interrupted,” Barone said. “As a surgeon, you want to go where the problem is, so adding brain surgery on top of spinal surgery just increases the risk to the patient. We can collect all the information we need from the spinal cord in a far less invasive way, so this would be a much safer approach for treating spinal injuries.”

Researchers warn that a treatment for spinal injuries based on this technology is still years away. However, the device could speed such treatments by providing the most comprehensive view ever of spinal cord activity.

“It's been almost impossible to study the whole of the spinal cord directly in a human, because it's so delicate and complex,” Barone said. “Monitoring during surgery will help us to understand the spinal cord better without damaging it, which in turn will help us develop better therapies for conditions like chronic pain, hypertension or inflammation. This approach shows enormous potential for helping patients.”

More information

Johns Hopkins Medicine has more on spinal cord injury.

SOURCE: University of Cambridge, news release, May 8, 2024

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