Author: Medical News Today
With an aging population susceptible to stroke, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions, and military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious limb injuries, the need for strategies that treat complex neurological impairments has never been greater.
One tack being pursued by neuroscientists and engineers is the development of “smart” neural prostheses. These devices are intended to restore function, through electrical stimulation, to damaged motor neural circuits – the long, slender fibers that conduct neurochemical messages between nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
It is the rapid-fire transmission of messages between nerve cells that prompts the body’s movements, leading the hand to whisk away a fly, the leg to stretch, the head to turn. And it is disruption of these messages that leads to impairment, including paralysis, staggered gaits and other forms of motor dysfunction.
Simple forms of neural prostheses — some external, some implantable — have been developed over the last four decades to treat loss of hearing, bladder control and respiration. And recent advances have led to the development of some “smart” neural prostheses, which engage higher levels of brain function.
However, significant challenges remain in developing ever-more precise implanted neural interfaces that operate at the cellular level and that will provide even greater precision and fidelity in restoring function.
Harnessing the brain’s “plasticity”
To truly harness the capacity of neural prostheses to treat complex damage of the nervous system, the devices must be designed to exploit the brain’s “plasticity,” or capacity for change, says Michael Merzenich, PhD, UCSF Francis A. Sooy Professor of Otolaryngology and a member of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at UCSF.
Merzenich’s pioneering studies over three decades have revealed the capacity of the brain to rewire itself in response to new conditions, even during adulthood and aging. And in developing the first neural prosthesis – the cochlear implant, in the early 1980s — and software programs for language and learning disabilities in the mid 1990s – he has demonstrated that the brain has the capacity to actively engage in a remediation, or retraining, process.
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