How amazing new device that wraps around the spine can help treat patients with paralysis

Spinal injuries can cause profound disability and paralysis – but a tiny, flexible electronic device that wraps around the spinal cord could give us a new approach to treatment.

A whole team of engineers, neuroscientists and surgeons from Cambridge University have developed the devices and used them to record the nerve signals going back and forth between the brain and the spinal cord.

The devices can also stimulate limb movement and bypass spinal cord injuries where communication between the brain and spinal cord had been totally interrupted. They could also lead to treatments for spinal injuries without the need for brain surgery, which would be far safer for patients.

“The spinal cord is like a highway, carrying information in the form of nerve impulses to and from the brain,” said Professor George Malliaras from the Department of Engineering, who co-led the research.

“Damage to the spinal cord causes that traffic to be interrupted, resulting in profound disability, including irreversible loss of sensory and motor functions.” To gain information from the whole spine, researchers wrapped very thin implants around the spinal cord’s circumference.

This is the first time that safe 360-degree recording of the spinal cord has been possible. The thinness of these amazing devices means that they can record the signals without causing any damage to the nerves. And in animal tests, the researchers successfully used them to stimulate limb movement.

Further tests in human cadaver models showed that the devices can be successfully placed in humans. “If someone has a spinal injury, their brain is fine, but it’s the connection that’s been interrupted,” says Dr Damiano Barone a neuroscientist.

“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 of 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.”

While a treatment for spinal injuries is still years away, in the nearer term, Cambridge researchers are currently making plans to use the electronic devices to monitor nerve activity in the spinal cord during surgery.

Looking to the future, Barone says: “Monitoring during surgery will help us to understand the spinal cord better without damaging it. And this in turn will help us to develop better therapies for conditions like chronic pain, hypertension or inflammation. This approach shows enormous potential for helping patients.” Great news.