Neurobiology For Dummies
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Paralysis has multiple causes. The part of the brain that controls movement can be damaged, such as from a stroke. Injuries and diseases can interrupt the message transmitted from the brain to the muscles. But treatment and research are helping, and rapid advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are making these science-fiction–sounding approaches feasible in the near future:

  • Rehabilitation and training help in all types of paralysis by strengthening pathways and recruiting alternate ones to bypass the injury.

  • Considerable current research is being done on the cause of the paralysis. Curing the actual disease is almost always the treatment of first choice.

  • One promising treatment for strokes and tumors involves regrowing neurons by taking cells that have been reprogrammed to be neural stem cells and doing autologous transplants derived from the person’s own tissue put into the damaged region.

  • Other research efforts involve the use of growth factors to stimulate regeneration in damaged brain areas.

  • Prosthetics may be used to alleviate paralysis by capturing the high-level neural signal for movement, bypassing the injury, and stimulating movement closer to the muscle, or by capturing high-level motor command signals and performing body movements with mechanical devices, such as prosthetic limbs or exoskeletons that magnify with motors the force exerted by our limbs, or that respond to brain commands for movement recorded by electrodes.

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Frank Amthor, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama and holds a secondary appointment in the UAB Medical School Department of Neurobiology. He has been an NIH-supported researcher for over 20 years and has published over 100 journal articles and conference abstracts.

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