SCIENTISTS researching spinal cord stimulation have been able to restore the ability to grasp with a paralysed hand for the first time.
Newcastle University researchers achieved the result with a macaque monkey, and it is hoped that the same technique will work with humans.
At present there is no cure for upper limb paralysis, where there has been damage to the nerves which send messages to the muscles from the brain, such as happens after a stroke or spinal injury.
But now Wellcome Trust-funded researchers have shown that by connecting the brain to a computer and then the computer to the spinal cord, it is possible to restore movement.
The discovery opens up the possibility of new treatments which could help stroke victims or those with spinal cord injuries regain some movement in their arms and hands.
The team trained macaque monkeys to grasp and pull a spring-loaded handle. The monkeys were then temporarily paralysed, using a drug that wore off in two hours.
During that time the monkey had no movement in its hand and was unable to grasp.
But when the stimulation circuit was switched on the monkey was able to control its own arm and pull the handle.
The work is published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.
Dr Andrew Jackson, a research fellow at Newcastle University and Dr Jonas Zimmermann, now at Brown University in Rhode Island, USA, led the research.
Dr Jackson said: “When someone has a damaged motor cortex or spinal cord the problem is that the signal from the brain to the muscles isn’t getting through. What we have done here is restore that connection, to allow the signal telling the hand to move to reach the spinal cord.
“By exploiting surviving neural networks below the injury, we can activate natural actions like grasping using just a few stimulation sites.
"This is the first time that anyone has done that.
“The next stage will be to further develop the technology to eventually have a small implant for use in patients that can then form the link between the brain and the muscles."
Dr Jackson added: “I think within five years we could have an implant which is ready for people.”
Dr Zimmermann said: “Animal studies such as ours are necessary to demonstrate the feasibility and safety of procedures before they can be tried in human patients.”