Bypassing the spine

In his life on earth, Jesus healed many people who were unable to walk (e.g., Mark 2:1-12). There are many people today who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to use their limbs, and the Spirit’s gift of healing is not common. We rely on our doctor’s ability to help us deal with medical problems and rightly ask God to give our doctors wisdom and skill. But there are times when today’s medicine is unable to help, and such persons must learn to live with their condition (if it is not fatal).

A break in the spine may result in a person becoming paraplegic or quadriplegic. In patients with a spinal break, the brain is able to command in an appropriate manner and the muscles are still functional (though they weaken significantly when not used), but the connection between the brain and the muscles – the spine – has been broken. This is a medical condition which doctors are currently unable to heal. Research is ongoing to see if we can get a spinal break to heal, but progress is slow. Thus, medical researchers have been looking at other ways to help people who have suffered a traumatic spinal injury.

One way that has been attempted with some success, if there is some limited motor function, is to implant electrodes in the muscles of a limb and then use a computer program to stimulate the muscles to perform meaningful actions. This technology is called functional electrical stimulation, and it has restored grasping responses to individuals who retained some volitional upper-arm abilities. For individuals with high spinal breaks and consequently no volitional abilities, this technology is less useful as it requires some motor ability to activate the computer program.

The power of thought
A second technology that has emerged in the last decade is to put devices into the brain either to stimulate or record from parts of the brain that control movement. Deep brain stimulation in the appropriate area is a treatment that has helped some individuals with Parkinson’s disease regain movement when drug treatments are no longer effective. As these brain devices become more sophisticated, they can also be used to record brain activity in specific parts of the brain.

In one recent study, Dr. Ajiboye and his associates of Case Western Reserve University implanted two recording electrode arrays into the motor area of the cortex that controls hand movement of a quadriplegic patient. These arrays were connected to a computer that was linked to a functional electrical stimulation system implanted in the patient’s arm. The patient was first trained to control a virtual arm on a computer simulator, and the muscles in his arm were regularly stimulated to strengthen them because of the atrophy that had occurred. Finally, the researchers connected the brain system to the arm stimulator and the patient was trained to use his arm. The patient was asked to think about movements like grasping a coffee cup and bringing it to his mouth to drink from a straw. With training the patient learned how to drink coffee and even eat mashed potatoes with remarkable success. The patient reported that the movements felt natural but just a bit slower than expected. The researchers see this work as proof in principle that we will be able to restore the connection between the brain and the body by using computer technology to bypass the broken spine.

The solution is not perfect; the patient receives no feedback from his body. Motor feedback is something we use to determine how hard to hold an object or to determine if the command was successfully completed. The patient reported that the absence of feedback was something he could adjust to if he could visually track his arm movements.

This demonstration is exciting: although many technological refinements can be made to this first system, there is no obvious reason to think that progress is not possible. Remember the Wright brothers’ first plane, and look at the current jumbo jets – then think of where this spinal bypass may be in 30 years. Thank our Lord for the skill and ingenuity he has given doctors.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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