Australian scientists are about to develop the first bionic spinal cord controlled only by thought. This project is being funded by the Australian government and the U.S. military. The $2.5 million project aims to implant a device on a paralyzed patient to control robotic limbs using their thoughts for five years.

The ambitious group of young Australian scientists from the Melbourne Bionics laboratory at the Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH) is a team of experts in the fields of engineering and neurology. They would like to find a way to trigger the brain signals that allow movement trapped by the injury to the spinal cord.

Dr. Tom Oxley, RMH neurology trainee and lead researcher, said the bionic spinal cord works by decoding the brain activity triggering limb movements. A computer will be trained to recognize brain signals then allow the limbs to move after brain signatures are registered.

Oxley added the project can help people with a spinal cord injury who still retain the part of the brain that controls limb movement. The Australian scientists are hopeful they can find a way to bring those brain signals out.

Oxley explained that the signal can trigger a robotic limb, computer, wheelchair or an exoskeleton. He noted the bionic spinal cord can enable paralyzed patients to have control over their movements again.

According to health experts, 20,000 Australians have spinal cord injuries with the average patient aged 19. After a stroke, about 150,000 Australians acquire severe disability.

Preclinical trials for the project have begun with the aid of biomedical engineers, Drs. Nick Opie, Sam John and Gil Rind from the University of Melbourne. Opie made part of the electrodes found in the bionic eye.

The Melbourne researchers have discovered a minimally invasive way of placing the electrode inside the brain unlike other interface technology involving the brain. He said the minimal invasive procedure is one of the selling points of the Melbourne team. He added the procedure is safer than existing techniques appropriate for the larger population.

The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. military, expressed interest in the project so soldiers with disabilities can get back to active service once they regain limb movement.

The Melbourne team was the only group to be awarded outside of the U.S. with $750,000 as funds for the bionic spinal cord project. The group was also granted $1.65 million from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia.