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Intel Joins Researchers to Use AI, ML in Curing Paralysis from Spinal Injuries

Funded by USA's DARPA and held in collaboration with Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital, the Intelligent Spine Interface holds massive potential for the future of medical science.

Shouvik Das | News18.com@distantvicinity

Updated:October 4, 2019, 5:19 PM IST
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Critical spinal cord injuries have been a major cause for paralysis, which the research now aims to heal. (Image: Brown University)
Critical spinal cord injuries have been a major cause for paralysis, which the research now aims to heal. (Image: Brown University)

Brown University, one of the world's premier educational and research institutes, has joined hands with Intel to undertake a research project that uses artificial intelligence to help solve paralysis in patients, induced by spinal cord injuries. The project, backed by a $6.3 million funding by United States' Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), aims to develop what is being called an 'Intelligent Spinal Interface' -- a technology that may help "restore limb movement, sensation and bladder control for people who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries."

The spinal cord is the literal backbone of the human nervous system, helping circulate electric pulses when nerves are stimulated through a particular action. For instance, if an individual is required to walk, the brain sends the requisite instruction to specific limbs through the nervous system. In a spinal cord injury that leads to severe end results such as partial or complete paralysis, the nervous system is impaired due to gaps in the neural circuitry of the human body. This, in turn, leads to what is observed as paralysis, which may manifest itself as the inability to move specific muscles of the body. This occurs due to the nervous impulses failing to reach the muscles related to the movement of those muscles.

In such cases, electrical impulses are often used to treat paralysed areas. However, these impulses are maintained as a steady flow of current, maintained by the stimulus input received through an accelerometer. With the Intelligent Spinal Interface, researchers at Brown University aim to use AI to closely replicate the natural flow of electric impulses through the human nervous system, making the flow of information bi-directional and measuring the nature and magnitude of the impulses to recreate muscle stimulation to as close as the natural instances. This, as the statement by Brown University states, can potentially open up a vast and critical area of therapy, and lead to medical achievements such as restoration of limb and bladder control.

Surgeons working on the project will implant electrodes on either end of a neural gap caused due to a spinal injury. These electrodes will use machine learning to understand the impulses sent by the human brain, and relay the impulses to the electrode on the other end of the injured section in almost real-time. This, the researchers state, should help patients regain control over a body part or segment that was impaired through the injury. As the researchers state, "Machine learning algorithms take care of the translation interface between the brain signals and how we want the post-injury site to react to the brain’s intent."

Intel, on this note, is bringing its hardware, software and research prowess to the table, including its open source AI repository to help the researchers and surgeons take the technology further. David Borton, assistant professor at Brown School of Engineering and researcher at the Carney Institute for Brain Science, says, "The hope is that by using information from either side of a lesion in a bidirectional way, we could make a significant impact on the treatment of spinal cord injuries. This exploratory study aims to build the toolset — the mix of hardware, software and functional understanding of the spinal cord — to make such a system possible."

The Intelligent Spinal Interface is not just a pivotal piece of research, but one that can potentially save or alter millions of lives affected by involuntary, accidental injuries. The project is one of the best examples of how artificial intelligence and machine learning can transcend their literal definitions, and apply themselves in critical fields to have a deeper impact on humankind. The project is presently underway, and will be progressed over a period of two years.

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