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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

US Military Seeks to Create Bionic Spinal Cords Controlled by Thought

Ashton Rosin

The U.S. military is collaborating with the Australian government to fund a $2.5 million project to develop the first bionic spinal cord controlled solely by thought. If the project proves successful after the five year pilot program, the device will allow people with quadriplegia to control cutting edge robotic arms in such a way that they are able to live more independently. Australian scientists from the Melbourne Bionics laboratory at the Royal Melbourne Hospital are using innovative expertise in the realms of engineering and neurology to cultivate brain signals that when triggered, stimulate movement to the spinal cord that is typically trapped by the injury.

NCIL believes that independent living is a civil right and should not be based on assessment of ability or disability. Therefore, the bionic spinal cord should not intend to cure people of their injury, but rather be reframed to exemplify an innovative avenue to promote agency and empowerment. We reject at every level the Cure or Kill Mentality and the Medical Model of disability, sometimes employed by researchers who seek to reverse disability with this type of technology. Rather, we hope to highlight these technological achievements as new pathways that can promote and further independent living for people with disabilities who are thriving and accomplishing as productive members of society.

Dr. Tom Oxley, the leading researcher, described the bionic spinal cord as a mechanism that works to decode the brain activity that generates limb movements. The computer that is embedded within the manufactured spinal cord will be trained to identify and register brain signals to promote movement. 

The logic that prompted this project is derived from the notion that if the part of the brain that controls the limbs is still operational after paralysis from a spinal cord injury or a stroke, then researchers can work to get the signal out. The signal must be fed into the robotic limb driven by a computer, making it is possible to control an array of devices that empower people with spinal cord injuries to have increased control and independence over their environment in a different way.

Preclinical trials are underway, as biomedical engineers demonstrate the discovery of a minimally invasive way of placing the electrode inside the brain, unlike other existing procedures that are less safe. If proven successful, the Australian team is confident that these techniques can be applied to a larger population on a greater scale by exporting the technology across the globe.

The U.S. military intends to use this technology for soldiers who have lost or injured limbs to foster a pathway for people with disabilities to return to active service. In doing so, the U.S. has demonstrated greater efforts to promote technological advances for its citizens and veterans with disabilities across the country. The technology could encourage new opportunities for people with disabilities, including formerly injured veterans, to serve, thus working to equalize employment opportunities for people with disabilities in the U.S.

Internationally, the race to achieve this technology has proven competitive, with only one other group of scientists able to implant a device of this nature in humans. Although the competing device was rejected after six months, it is evident that this international commitment to research and technology for people with quadriplegia can be translated into more successful outcomes for people with disabilities across the world.

Technological progress manifested as the birth of the bionic spinal cord can be recognized as an opportunity to promote technology, on all scales, as a means of furthering independent living for people with disabilities. In doing so, we acknowledge technology as a means of advancing independent living, not curing people of their disabilities.

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