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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