Research on monkeys could allow paralysed hands to move again

Research at Newcastle University on macaque monkeys could eventually allow patients paralysed from the waist up to grasp objects with their hands. It involved redirecting electronic signals from the brain to the spinal cord through a computer.

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Monkey paralysis research: How it works

Researchers at Newcastle University, working with macaque monkeys, have shown that by connecting the brain to a computer and then the computer to the spinal cord, it is possible to restore movement.

They say the discovery opens up the possibility of new treatments within the next few years which could help stroke victims or people with spinal cord injuries regain some movement in their arms and hands.

The team trained macaque monkeys to pull a handle. The monkeys were temporarily paralysed, using a drug that wore off after two hours. The monkeys had no movement in their hands. But when the stimulation circuit was switched on the monkey could pull the handle.

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Paralysis breakthrough: What the experts say

For the first time scientists have been able to restore the ability to grasp with a paralysed hand using spinal cord stimulation. There is currently no cure for upper limb paralysis. This can be caused by a stroke or spinal injury.

Researchers at Newcastle University, working with macaque monkeys, have shown that by connecting the brain to a computer and then the computer to the spinal cord, it is possible to restore movement.

"Much of the technology we used for this is already being used separately in patients today, and has been proven to work. We just needed to bring it all together.

"I think within five years we could have an implant which is ready for people. And what is exciting about this technology is that it would not just be useful for people with spinal injuries but also people who have suffered from a stroke and have impaired movement due to that. There are some technical challenges which we have to overcome, as there is with any new technology, but we are making good progress."

– Dr Andrew Jackson, Research Fellow at Newcastle University

"Animal studies such as ours are necessary to demonstrate the feasibility and safety of procedures before they can be tried in human patients, to minimise risk and maximise chance of successful outcomes."

– Dr Jonas Zimmermann, now at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA

"Being able to restore dexterous hand movements to patients paralysed by stroke or spinal cord injury would be a huge improvement to their independence and quality of life. The Newcastle University team's research, which harnesses the intact portions of the nervous system and creates new artificial connections, is at the cutting edge of neuro and rehabilitation science. When used alone or in combination with other rehabilitation approaches, this technique could lead to significant improvements in hand function and transform the lives of paralysed patients."

– Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust

Research on monkeys could enable paralysed hands to move again

Pioneering research at Newcastle University could eventually allow patients paralysed from the waist up the power to grasp objects with their hands.

The process involves redirecting electronic signals from the brain to the spinal cord through a computer.

To test the theory, scientists used macaque monkeys, temporarily paralysing them to mimic human injuries, inevitably raising concerns over experiments on animals.

Dr Andrew Jackson, Research Fellow at Newcastle Univeristy, explains the controversial decision and the process involved.

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