New Frontiers in Neurological Rehabilitation Medicineby Shaheen E Lakhan, MD, PhD, MEd, MS, FAAN | July 22, 2006
Imagine a world where science fiction is the reality. People are now able to become real life Darth Vaders like in the Star Wars movies. Limbs are replaced by electrical circuits and motherboards. Wheel chairs are hard to find, because replacement legs are as widely available as cars. All of this could happen within the next generation as we make progress towards this type of technology. Now in the 21st century, we use artificial hearts, dialysis machines, hearing aids, and pacemakers. These inventions seem spectacular to us today, but in a few years new technology will make them look outdated. We are only at the beginning of a new medical revolution I call the “Modification Age”.
Today’s scientists and doctors have made plenty of progress for treatment and therapies for spinal cord injuries. Unfortunately current treatments have their limitations. Patients can opt to have surgery, combined with physical therapy, and medications or suffer in pain. If surgery can’t reverse damage to the spinal cord, it still may be needed to prevent future pain and deformity to the spine. However surgery isn’t always a sure cure and multiple surgeries may be needed to achieve satisfactory results. Neuroscientists in Europe and the US have already developed implanted devices that tap directly into the nervous system to restore some functionality to patients. For example, researchers in Denmark and Japan, have developed implanted spinal cord devices that have presented impressive results. The branch of science that makes all of this technology possible, is Neuroengineering.
What is Neuroengineering? Neuroengineering applies engineering techniques to help solve problems in neuroscience and neurology. By combining these disciplines, researchers are able to make significant contributions to medicine that was thought to be impossible before. However there is a limited amount of funding available for this type of research. Neuroengineering is not very popular among the public because of the perception to neural implants. Some people have ideas of mad scientists implanting devices into people’s brains to control them or creating Terminator like soldiers for war. This is pure science fiction. Unfortunately pharmaceutical and biotech companies are much more interested in drug and gene therapies, because implants are seen as temporary and possibly dangerous devices. More funding goes towards stem cell research and drug therapies, because this type of research is focused on finding a cure for disease and less on rehabilitation.
In 2003, scientists at Duke University implanted computer chips into the brains of monkeys that allowed them to control a robotic arm with their thoughts . The hope of the project is for paralyzed people to be able to overpass brain lesions and damaged parts of the spine. Patients would then be able to control robotic aids, like mechanical arms and legs, completely from the power of an implanted chip. Without adequate funding, programs like this will continue to be few in number.
Scientists at the Dobelle Institute in Portugal have created an artificial vision system. Patients, who have lost their vision to injury, are able to achieve a level of vision that is almost close to normal vision. The patients can see patterns of flashing lights that they are taught to interpret as shapes and objects. They wear special sunglasses, which are equipped with digital cameras and mini computers. There is also an implanted device inside their skulls, that helps their eyes interpret what they see. Maybe in a few years, this type of technology, with vast improvements, will be able to completely restore sight.
Combining neuroengineering with orthodox medicine allows us to make significant progress. The possibilities of neuroengineering are endless. The discoveries and inventions in this field will ultimately create advances in medicine. However because of the public’s perception to neuroengineering and the lack of funding from government and biotech companies, the field will continue to be stigmatized. Today people are more likely to wait for a cure through genetic research rather than take advantage of current neuroengineering technologies.
By: Jennifer V. Barthe
Editor: Shaheen Lakhan
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