Spinal injuries are a huge deal because even a small bit of damage can affect large parts of your body. In the case of paraplegics and quadriplegics, there's nothing wrong with their muscles, but spinal cord damage means the brain just can't get signals to the limbs to tell them what to do.
Scientists have been working on a number of solutions. One of the more promising is an exoskeleton that straps on to the person's limbs and helps them move around. However, the hardware is bulky and expensive. A new solution, however, lets subjects use their own muscles.
Doctors and researchers from the University of California at Irvine have figured out a way to bypass the break in a patient's spinal cord. Using this technique, a 26-year-old paraplegic man, who has been wheelchair-bound for five years, managed to walk 3.5 meters under his own power.
The system consists of a cap with electrodes, a microcontroller non-invasively connected to the patient's knees and a computer. When the patient thinks about walking, the computer picks up the brain signals and transmits instructions to the microcontroller.
The controller then stimulates healthy nerves that set the legs in motion. Gyroscopes on the patient's ankles help the computer adjust the movements.
In other words, the patient doesn't intentionally move each leg; the computer does most of the work. However, over a 19-week course, the patient was able to improve how he interacted with the system.
This system still does have a ways to go. Right now, it's too crude and bulky for full unaided walking. However, the researchers are confident that using microchips implanted in the skull and limbs, it can eventually be workable, and even give the user sensation from the affected areas.