The BYAXON project makes no extravagant claims. It is very early days for the technology it is proposing, and much more research is needed to take the innovation forward once this four-year undertaking ends in December 2020.
Nonetheless, the project is shaping what might, eventually, turn out to be a major breakthrough in the treatment of paralysis. The partners are developing a prototype of an implant designed to restore signal transmission directly in the spinal cord.
This possibility does not currently exist, they note, adding that the implant would serve as an active local bypass. It would bridge the lesion, reconnecting nerves on either side.
The implant envisaged by BYAXON would enable signals to travel both ways – in addition to instructions reaching the limbs, sensory information would once again be returned to the brain. Current neural interfacing technology does not deliver this feedback, the researchers explain, and typically involves cables or electrodes – or equipment that is not portable.
BYAXON’s innovative approach to neural interfacing involves the development of a new generation of sensors and electrodes based on nanostructured materials. While its research focuses on spinal cord injuries, the partners observe that the technology could be harnessed for other types of neural interface.
Examples include retinal implants, brain-recording systems for people with epilepsy, and deep-brain stimulation devices for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. BYAXON is backed by a Horizon 2020’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) programme, through a grant scheme designed to support the initial stages of research exploring radically new ideas (FET-Open).