A few days ago, news came out of a research study from UC Irvine of a man using his thoughts to move his legs and walk by circumventing his damaged spinal cord. He was five years post Spinal Cord Injury, with no motor or sensory function below his level of injury and was able to train his brain and body to relearn how to walk. The process didn’t involve an implant or surgery but instead used an electroencephalogram (EEG) system that sent his brain signals directly to electrodes attached to his legs.
Although he was the only subject in the study, thus proving that the results must be replicated many times for them to have a more significant impact, this is still an incredibly exciting breakthrough. I recently wrote a post about my thoughts on cures for SCI and while I have no doubt that scientists will continue to explore this method and improve upon it, for me the most interesting element of the study, and the most relevant, was one of the more subtle points.
“He first underwent mental training to reactivate the brain areas responsible for controlling movements involved in walking. The researchers placed an EEG cap on his head to read his brainwaves, and he trained to control an avatar in a virtual reality setting.” (CBS News)
In other words, he had to visualize moving his legs and walking in order to establish that pattern of brain signals and then, just like strengthening a muscle by lifting weights or exercising, he had to continuously exercise that visualization pattern and strengthen the connection between the thought and the movement he wanted to achieve.
I’ve written at length about my frustrations with the inconsistency and shortcomings of the medical establishment when it comes to Spinal Cord Injury, but one thing that I did consistently hear from almost every medical practitioner was the importance of visualization as an essential element in one’s recovery. Everyone said this to me. “If you can’t move that part of your body, then think about it. Try to move it as much as you can. Keep sending those signals.”
As a result, so much of my recovery efforts are based on combining my intent and effort to send the signal of movement from my brain to a part of my body and then achieving that movement either with the support of equipment or a person and most often both. Even when I swim, I’ve established the habit of constantly thinking about kicking my legs and propelling myself forward using my lower body, even if I have difficulty doing so on my own.
But how do I know if my efforts to visualize and send brain signals are actually accomplishing anything? Is it possible to measure visualization skills in any way?
In my belief, those breakthroughs of progress that I’ve achieved must be somewhat attributed to the diligent effort to visualize and constantly try to tap into the mental aspect of my training as much as the physical. While it’s impossible to say that X amount of this one accomplishment is due to visualization I did on certain specific days, I think the bottom line is that the mental exercise can and does lead to physical results, as evidenced by this research.
Furthermore, neuroplasticity (the all important yet still not widely accepted concept that the brain and nervous system is not hard wired and can rewire and repair itself) gets a big boost from this research. The old school, outdated way of thinking about the neurological system would say that any damage to the system is permanent and irreparable. But if a guy can go five years after his injury, and in a manner of a few weeks visualize and retrain those parts of the brain responsible for sending signals to his lower body, and then find a way to move those muscles and walk by skipping over the damaged part of his spinal cord, then I don’t think there’s any question that neuroplasticity is real and should finally become acknowledged and taught in the medical textbooks.
I’m happy to see this story confirm the importance and success of visualization and hope that it can lead to further developments and more progressive ways of treating SCI and neurological conditions.