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Paralysis victims may walk again with Melbourne invention -

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MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: A team of Melbourne medical researchers is optimistic a new device will help people with paralysis walk again in the not too distant future.

It's being described as a "bionic spinal cord" and, as Samantha Donovan explains, it's powered by a person's thoughts.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: A device the size of a small paper clip may soon be giving people with paralysis the power to walk again.

Clive May is a neurophysiologist at the Florey Institute.

CLIVE MAY: What we have done is taken a stent, which is normally put into an artery to expand the artery.

We've used that same technology and we've put micro-electrodes around it.

And we worked out a way of inserting this up through blood vessels into a blood vessel in the brain that's just above the motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls movement.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Professor May says the researchers can then record the brain's signals.

CLIVE MAY: Those signals will be able to be interpreted and we are hoping that those signals will be able to be linked wirelessly to either an exoskeleton, a device to enable somebody who has a spinal cord injury to walk, or maybe a wheelchair so that they can move the wheelchair via their thoughts.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: So is it a matter of someone with paralysis thinking to themselves: I want to put left foot in front of right and keep going, and that signal then gets interpreted?

CLIVE MAY: That is exactly right. That's the long-term aim of this device.

What has been shown in other instances is that patients can learn over time to use their brain to move devices in a particular way that they choose to do.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: Melbourne neurologist Dr Tom Oxley came up with the idea a few years ago and a team of nearly 40 scientists at the University of Melbourne, The Florey Institute and the Royal Melbourne Hospital has been working on it ever since.

Clive May says the biggest advantage of this device is that major brain surgery isn't needed.

CLIVE MAY: All the other devices require a craniotomy to insert them which means removing part of the skull.

Some of these devices are actually punched into the brain tissue itself and obviously that can cause damage.

And signals from these other devices tend to disappear with time.

And so a big advantage of our device is that it can be put in through a small nick in the blood vessel in the neck and then in what we think will be a day procedure put up into a blood vessel in the brain.

Because it's actually within a blood vessel in the brain, it's not actually going to be causing any damage to the brain.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The 20,000 Australians with a spinal cord injury and many more around the world will be encouraged by this development.

Should they get their hopes up though?

CLIVE MAY: I think people should get their hopes up that there are many developments in this area and ours is just one of them.

Obviously it's going to be some time before we can be sure that it works and before it can become in widespread use.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The team is intending to implant the device in a small group of spinal cord patients next year.

The research has been funded by a number of organisations including The Australian Defence Health Foundation and the US Defense Department.

Professor Clive May:

CLIVE MAY: This is one of the big driving forces at the moment is that there are many people who've come back from the wars who have not any spinal cord injuries but amputations.

So particularly in the US there are tens of thousands of young men with single or multiple amputations and these devices will not only be able to be used to drive an exoskeleton or a wheelchair but the aim is to get devices that will be able to move a bionic arm as well so that will give people much more freedom to live a normal life.

SAMANTHA DONOVAN: The research is being published today in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Samantha Donovan.