Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology have figured out how to get paralyzed rats walking again, and they suspect that they can do the same for people.
In a study published Friday by the journal Science, researchers explain that they severed nerves in rats’ spinal cords by making two incisions half way through at two key points. The rats were later fitted with a special backpack-looking robotic device that delivers targeted electric shocks, enabling them to begin walking on their own again after just a few weeks of regular training.
The robot works by delivering a shock to the spinal cord that causes the rat’s lower legs to contract and extend in a walking movement that’s entirely automated, triggered by the rat’s own willful attempt at movement.
Suspended above a tiny treadmill for 30 minutes a day, six days a week, using the robot to work out their legs, the rats at first could not control the movement. After about two or three weeks, researchers found that the rats actually began to rebuild key neural pathways needed to trigger this movement on their own.
What researchers discovered was that eventually the rats would begin to utilize the robot’s capabilities subconsciously, and by nine weeks many had trained themselves to climb stairs and avoid objects placed in their path.
Human trials of a similar robot-assisted physical therapy are expected to begin soon.
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