Researchers get grants for devices to help paralyzed people

In June 2004, scientists implanted a Utah Electrode Array into a paralyzed human patient for the first time.

The electrodes, which poke into the part of the brain controlling movement, allowed the patient to control a computer screen cursor by simply thinking about it.

The array is a silicon chip measuring a quarter-inch in diameter, containing 100 tiny electrodes.

“We hope [we] will someday help blind individuals see, allow paraplegics to stand and eventually walk, and let people with vocal cord problems speak,” said Richard Normann, a professor of bioengineering and ophthalmology who is helping to spearhead the project.

To further develop that biotechnology, U researchers will spend about $6.7 million in federal grants.

Scientists at the U’s College of Engineering and the U’s Health Sciences center received the money in the form of four grants from the National Institutes of Health. The projects receiving the funding are intended to expand the Utah Electrode Array technology that Normann first developed in 1989.

Now they are trying to go wireless, eliminating the necessity of 100 wires protruding from patients’ skulls. It will also decrease their chance of infection, in addition to having wires snag while they are wheelchair-bound, according to Normann.

“To go from a bundle of wires sticking out of somebody’s head to a totally implantable system that is invisible will be a major advance in this technology,” Normann said.

Normann has spent more than a decade developing the Utah Electrode Array so it eventually can be implanted in the brains of blind people. They would wear a tiny eyeglass-mounted camera to collect visual information, and then relay it to electrodes in the brain’s visual cortex. Once it is completed, the wireless array will make such an artificial vision system easier for blind people to wear and use.

Implanted electrodes can more precisely “listen” to individual nerve cells and record their activity, allowing paralyzed people to control computers or their own limbs quicker, Normann said.

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A look at the $6.658 million in grants

-$2.816 million over four years What it will be used for: To develop a wireless version of the array. Benefit: No wires sticking out of patients’ skulls.

-$2.048 million over four yearsWhat it will be used for: To develop an array that will come into contact with more than just the nerve fibers at a single depth. Benefit: New applications, including enough nerve stimulation to allow paraplegics to stand and eventually walk on their own or provide bladder control for incontinence.-$1.383 million over four years What it will be used for: To increase the biocompatibility of the arrays.Benefit: Less chance of bodies rejecting the chips.

-$411,000 over two years What it will be used for: To determine the feasibility of using an array to reanimate and give normal movement to defunct vocal cords.Benefit: Another practical use for the technology.