2016 in a nutshell: Boffins break monkeys' backs to turn them into tragic shuffling cyborgs

Spine chilling

Scientists trying to find a cure for spinal injuries have claimed a notable success.

Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has produced a paper describing how his team mapped and recorded the neural activity in monkeys standing and walking on treadmills. The eggheads then crippled the beasts, implanted electrodes in their brains and at the base of the spinal cord, and replayed the messages to make the animals move again.

"The whole team was screaming in the room as we watched," Courtine told Nature. The implants enabled the monkeys to stand and perform a few steps, but not rhythmic coordination of gait or the ability to dodge around objects. There was some improvement over the course of a few weeks but complex locomotion was out of the question.

"A small improvement in the ability to grasp changes your quality of life, but 'almost walking' doesn't help much," Courtine said. "With the legs, it's all or nothing."

Unfortunately, there are some other problems. For the technique to work in humans the team would have to map the patient's neural patterns while they could still walk. That means people who are already paralyzed would be out of luck unless they had recorded their steps.

Nevertheless, the research does allow Courtine to cut down on his commute. Due to animal testing rules in the US and Europe, his spine-snapping research is banned, so the team had to do most of the work in a laboratory in Beijing. The success of this research means that the Swiss authorities have given him a license to knacker five monkeys at a Swiss primate laboratory. ®

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