Research coming out of San Diego could change the lives of people with traumatic brain and spinal injuries by rewiring the way their brain sends signals to the rest of their bodies.
San Diego State University’s Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE), a microfabrication lab at the university, will spend the next four years trying to read, process and decode the millions of neural signals transmitted from the brain in an effort to help people with traumatic brain and spinal injuries regain certain functions -- all with the help of a special chip they've designed, researchers said.
The lab, which recently had its funding renewed, focuses on traumatic brain and spinal injuries in their research and the chip works in different ways depending on the disease, said Sam Kassegne, deputy director for the CSNE at SDSU and a professor in the mechanical engineering department.
For stroke victims, who have had part of their brain damaged, researchers use one chip inserted in the healthy part of the brain, Kassegne said. The chip will then send electric signals to the damaged part of the brain in an effort to stimulate it.
“After few weeks and few months what happens is the brain rewires in such a way the it learns the task that was being transformed by the damaged part,” Kassegne said. “Therefore the person gets part of all of the functionalities that were done by the damaged part.”
In limited cases so far, groups have demonstrated they could move toes or fingers again, Kassegne said.
For patients with spinal injuries, researchers will place a chip at the top of the brain and another chip under the spinal injury. The chip in the brain would wirelessly transmit the signals to the chip below the injury, effectively bypassing the damaged tissue and sending the signal to the rest of the body, Kassegne said.
“In this case, what we’ve done is we’ve bypassed the diseased, the damaged area,” Kassegne said. “And the healthy part picks up a signal and the healthy person now has the ability to use their arms or legs.”
The lab works in conjunction with The University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The program and will be operating for the next four to five years, thanks to a renewed $15 to $20 million fund spread out over the years.
After those four or five years, Kassegne said, the research is expected to enter the clinical trial phase, where more humans will be implanted with the device. One of those groups, Kassegne said, would be a group of veterans.
In the coming years, the center will be working to decode more of the millions of signals sent from the brain. By doing so, they can begin to build their chips to read signals from a wider section of the brain to help them “get the intent of the brain exactly or as exact as you can,” Kassegne said.
Maeko Hirabayashi, a third year PhD student working at the lab, said it’s great to be able to work with the patient in mind.
“When we talk with the University of Washington, some of them work with the rehabilitation center, and it’s really nice to know that these actually have a possibility of getting implanted because we know what the end user needs,” she said.
Could the technology help someone who cannot walk get back the ability to walk? Kassegne thinks so, though the center is roughly three to five years away from that capability.
Though it may take years, that is the hope for the research, Kassegne said.
“That’s the end game: reanimation, and people who have lost the functionality of their brain, actually having that non-damaged part regain as much functionality as possible,” Kassegne said.