A paralysed man touches his girlfriend’s hand…thanks to animal research.

Earlier this year we reported that scientists at the University of Pittsburgh had launched clinical trials of two different brain implant systems, known as brain machine interfaces,  that aim to give quadriplegic patients control over a prosthetic limb. At the time we noted that this technology was built on years of basic and translational research in animals, with research on monkeys playing an especially important role.

Now the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports on the first success of these trials. An Electrocorticographic implant enabled Tim Hemmes, who has been paralyzed below the neck since a motorcycle accident 7 years ago, to control a robotic arm with great precision, just as had been predicted from the studies in monkeys.  Being able to gently touch his girlfriends hand was a very emotional moment for Tim Hemmes, but it could hardly have been much less emotional for the team of scientists and physicians who developed the implant.

Tim Hemmes reaches out. Associated Press.

It is exciting news, and one that will spur further research in this fast-moving area of research. One drawback in the brain machine interface technology that is being evaluated in the current series of trials at the University of Pittsburgh is that the system does not include sensory feedback – the person using it cannot feel what they are touching and must rely on sight alone to guide their movements.

A solution to this problem may be close, earlier this month a team led by Professor Miguel Nicholelis of Duke University reported that they have developed a brain machine interface that uses electrical signals sent directly to the brain to enable monkeys to “feel” what a virtual arm is touching, and then control the movement of that virtual arm in response to the sensation. It is an important advance, and again one that depended on years of careful animal research to identify the correct parameters for the electrical signals used, and the optimal location for implanting the brain machine interface.

Human trials of the brain machine interface system developed by Prof. Nicholelis and his colleagues are expected to begin within the next few years.

The development of brain machine interface technology to this point, where it is offering the hope of greater independence and mobility to thousands of quadriplegic patients, is a great achievement of animal research.  In order to ensure that this technology, and many others at the cutting edge of medical science, to fulfill their potential we must continue to support the use of animals in biomedical research.