It's the year 2012, and while we don't all have jet packs or flying cars, there have been some pretty incredible scientific discoveries as of late. Two amazing studies in particular have come out involving advances in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. The first helped paralyzed rats to walk again, and in the second a tetraplegic woman used a thought-controlled robotic arm to take her first self-directed sip of coffee in 15 years.
The first study, published in Science by a Swiss research group, used rats to study physical rehabilitation in paraplegic animals. The researchers partially severed the spinal cords of a group of rats, paralyzing their hind-legs but crucially sparing some of the nerve tracts up to the brain. They then stimulated the spinal cords of these animals in the affected region with an electro-chemical current, hoping to excite the remaining nerve cells. The idea behind this is that if you can activate somatosensory signals (the sensations of touch and position of the body) in the affected limbs, you can help rewire the brain to potentially encourage firing of motor neurons as well.