CEO & Co-Founder, Senseforth, Inc
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 40 and 80 million people around the world have spinal cord injuries that cause paralysis. According to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, in the United States alone, about 1,462,220 people live with paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries. Many of these people became partially or fully paralyzed by motor vehicle accidents, participating in physical labor and falling.
Until recently, people with spinal cord injuries had few treatment options. Medical researchers have had some success with treatments like rehabilitation, spinal surgery and medications. Few people, however, fully recover from limb paralysis. Caring for victims of limb paralysis costs about $40.5 billion per year.
New research is giving renewed hope to patients with paralyzed limbs. Somewhat surprisingly, the technological breakthrough involves Wi-Fi similar to the Wi-Fi that lets you connect to the internet.
How Spinal Cord Injuries Cause Limb Paralysis
Before you can understand how scientists use Wi-Fi to heal limb paralysis, you need to know a bit about why spinal cord injuries cause limb paralysis.
Most movements begin in the brain instead of the limbs. When you want to move your right arm, your brain sends a signal down your spinal cord, where it connects to nerve paths that lead to your right arm. In return, nerves in the arm send information back to the brain via the spinal cord. Any blocks in that system can cause limb paralysis.
If your spinal cord were to get damaged, you might develop a block that prevents the brain and right arm from communicating with each other. Essentially, the damage cuts the wires that your body uses to send and receive signals from the brain. It’s like trying to use a landline with a cut telephone cord.
Wi-Fi Implants Offer a New Approach to Solving Limb Paralysis
A few years ago, scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology imagined that they could use Wi-Fi to jump over damaged areas of the spinal cord. They tested the concept on a group of rhesus monkeys that each had a paralyzed leg.
After some exploration, the scientists decided to implant a device in each monkey’s brain. They also implanted electrodes in the monkey’s spines. By strategically placing the electrodes farther down the spine than the injury, the scientists found that the monkeys could transfer information from their brains to their paralyzed limbs wirelessly.
Following the telephone analogy, it’s like scientists upgraded the landline connection to a wireless connection. Even with a serious injury along the spinal cord, the brain and limb could still communicate.
Developing a Wireless Cure for Limb Paralysis
Researchers still have more work to do before they can test wireless information transfer on humans. Some experts, however, believe that they may develop a human version of the implants within the next decade.
In the meantime, scientists will continue improving their Wi-Fi concept. Rhesus monkeys walk on all four limbs. Since most humans walk on two limbs, researchers will need to address issues like balance and sensitivity to uneven surfaces. It will require a lot of innovative advances. Since scientists have already proven the basic concept, though, they just need to finish the details of converting the technology to something that will work in humans.
New technological discoveries continue to surprise researchers as well as laypeople who don’t know much about medical science. This new approach gives hope to millions of people around the world who live with limb paralysis. Within a few years, medical Wi-Fi could practically eliminate limb paralysis caused by spinal injuries.