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Restoring Movement in Patients With Paralysis Through Brain-Machine Interfaces

More than 5.4 million persons live with paralysis in the U.S., with stroke, spinal cord injury and neurodegenerative disorders among the leading causes of paralysis. And that number is climbing as a result of injuries sustained in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a tremendous and growing need to find new and more effective methods to improve the quality of life of these persons.

Abhishek Prasad, an assistant professor in the College’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, is working with Jonathan Jagid, associate professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of Miami, and The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis on an emerging technology that allows people to use neural activity to directly control the movement of prosthetic devices or control functional electrical stimulation of paralyzed muscles. The multidisciplinary team includes neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, neurologists, physical therapists and biomedical engineers at the University of Miami. “New research and developments in the field of neurotechnology have the potential to significantly improve the quality of life of these people,” Prasad says. “Brain-machine interfaces can help reanimate nonfunctional limbs, replace missing limbs with neuroprosthetics and enable new modes of direct neural communication and rehabilitation.”

During the past 30 years, researchers have made significant progress in demonstrating the feasibility and potential for direct brain control of muscle and nerve stimulators. Prasad and Jagid hope to advance knowledge from previous studies and leverage advancements in the neurotechnology so that the technology can be deployed in a next-generation, fully implantable brain-machine interface that is suitable for clinical trials in humans. The main mission of the study is to develop and demonstrate innovative, direct neural interface technology that restores spinal cord injury patients’ motor function, reduces secondary conditions and improves their quality of life.

Next-generation implantable brain-machine interfaces will require a method of dynamic feature selection for optimization of neural control signals, should be aesthetically acceptable, invisible or fully implantable, and able to function with minimal assistance from a technician, so that the neuroprosthetic can be used in multiple activities of daily living outside a laboratory setting. Prasad’s lab is working to develop co-adaptive models, in which the system adapts to the user’s neural activity while the user adapts to the way the system makes a decision and controls an action. The goal is to develop an intelligent modeling infrastructure that can run on a neural interface with low power and limited computational capabilities to support fully implantable brain-machine interfaces. These bionic systems can potentially restore upper extremity function in people living with the total or partial loss of use of all four limbs and torso, known as tetraplegia.

The result of this research, Prasad says, will be a fully implantable brain-machine interface that can be used to restore a person’s control of paralyzed muscles for hand functions. “This study offers tremendous promise to develop and deliver an assistive system for people with motor paralysis that has the potential to improve their quality of life,” Prasad says. “In employing this novel device, we hope to restore control of a user’s own arm and offer an innovative approach to therapy for persons with paralysis.” Jagid adds, “The technology already exists and we have it, now it’s just a matter of finding the right person to benefit.”

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