SLIPPERY SOLUTION

SLIPPERY SOLUTION

Grose, Thomas

BIOENGINEERING

LAMPREY EELS are among the most primitive offish. Nevertheless, researchers at the University of Maryland and at Johns Hopkins University are studying the serpentine critters in hopes of developing a neuroimplant that could help the paralyzed walk. Ralph Etienne-Cummings, an electrical engineer at Johns Hopkins, and Avis H. Cohen, a Maryland biologist, are working with lamprey spinal cords not only because they’re easy to study but also because they control locomotion in a way that’s very similar to human cords. Moreover, the eel spine can be removed and kept alive in a solution, yet still be induced to send nerve signals -just like a live fish.

Most research to help the paralyzed walk focuses on stimulating the muscles directly. Etienne-Cummings and Cohen think they can design a microchip to control the nerves that control the muscles. When a spinal column is severed, the central pattern generators that process brain signals and move our legs are cut off from those signals. The researchers’ goal is a neuro-implant that will mimic the brain signals, thus activating the generators. If they succeed with the eels, they’ll move on to small mammals. A human chip, however, is at least a decade away. -TG

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Mar 2005

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