Adam Fritz,21, was like any other easy going youth. Wayback in 2008, while returning from work, he was cruising fast on his motorcycle. Suddenly, he found himself struck hard from a table which had slipped from the truck. The collision was so severe that it fell him down from the motorcycle. He could tell in his mind: “Oh shit, I am hit by the truck. I am not able to move my legs.” He lost the consciousness after that.
However, Fritz was able to hear the occasional sound. The recollection of the accident was still very clean and sharp in his mind. After few seconds, the figure of crowd started fainting and shaking, and the signboard of the Diamond Bar in California, where the accident had taken place, turned into a light shadow.
It seemed now more like a wave shaped geometrical structure—not a square board. He could barely read ‘D-I-A-M….’. The alphabets felt like dancing on the signboard.
And, then there is a break in the memory. This all happened in just less than a second.
After two days when he resumed consciousness again knew the harsh reality – that he could never walk due to spinal cord injury. ‘Never’—he uttered in the mind , and just closed his eyes. But he knew that closing the eyelids would not change the reality, and he had to acclimatize to the new life as soon as possible. Fritz found it hard to digest the change realities of life. He was constantly training his mind to spend the remaining part of the life on the wheelchair.
Virtual Reality and computer algorithm raised hope
A team led by Zoran Nenadic, an associate professor in biomedical engineering at the University of California Irvine, knew that spinal cord injury, though breaks the connection of legs from brain, but it does not damage all regions of the brain that sends neural signals to legs.
He, with his team, was trying somehow to bypass the damaged region and send the neural signals to leg muscles again.
Rehab specialists knew from long time that where to attach electrodes to the legs and flow the electric pulses in the paralyzed person – so that his leg muscles are toned. The other electrode remains embedded in the cap to capture the signals emanating from the brain which were directed to computer.
But, these were separate incidents. No one had thought to mix these both to make a voluntary leg motion. Nendic was trying to solve this, but he needed a patient—who is motivated enough to serve as test subject to carryout the experiment.
He soon found Fritz, who was then admitted in Project Walk Spinal Cord Recovery Center in Carishad. He was regularly spending time in the gym to tone up his leg muscles. Nendic met him and showed his intention. “You are not made to spend life on the wheel chair. You can get rid of this. But, before that, you will have to help yourself.
Fritz agreed. It raised some amount of hope. Nendic fitted his head with scalp electrodes. He was instructed to think about walking. In his mind, he was physically moving his legs and then stop them.” It was more like a virtual Reality game. Ritz mastered the video game in 11 hours.
How the brain-computer ‘duo’ worked?
During the experiment he had to focus his mind on placing one foot with other. The extreme concentration generated brain waves which were translated into impulses by a computer algorithm, which in turn instructed leg muscles to generate leg movement. However, spinal cord was bypassed in the process.
The team of scientists believed that it’s possible to get a paralyzed patient to walk again by bypassing the damaged part of the spine just by transmitting electrical impulses directly to the leg muscles.
“If you break your concentration, it wouldn’t work anymore,” he said shortly after scientists from the University of California, Irvine. The feat was reported in the British Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation.
Scientists are now working to downsize the computer system by reducing the number of wires and devices.
Nenadic and his team now preparing to replicate this success on other patient who lost his arm use. The technology may well be useful for stroke patients. Fritz is now more hopeful. He’s has got his feet back, but he is more determined to help others.