Paralyzed Man Partially Regains Ability To Walk With Spinal Cord Implants

Alicia Farmer
November 3, 2018

"Selected configurations of electrodes are activating specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking", she said.

The technique is called spinal cord electrical stimulation and, thanks to it, the volunteers who took part in the study could recover some their walking ability, even if not totally.

Created by a team at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the device was part of the work done in a clinical trial, as published in the journal Nature. Both men had been told they would never walk again and were wheelchair bound.

The challenge for the patients was to learn how to coordinate their brains' intention to walk with the targeted electrical stimulation.

Mzee can control the stimulation remotely through his watch. "It is also this spatiotemporal coincidence that triggers the growth of new nerve connections".

The researchers had to adjust the details for each of the three patients in the study, adapting to the individual measurements of each person's spinal cord.

"It definitely gives us a lot of hope, which is extremely important", Dr Gustin said.

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Spinal cord injury leads to severe locomotor deficits or even complete leg paralysis. And in September this year, two separate papers reported breakthroughs in allowing patients with paralysis to walk, with assistance, as a result of EES.

Professor Courtine has been working in this area for 15 years and said the results were "amazing". 'The collision of signals is confusing the brain and the patient, ' she says. All the participants continued to improve during the five-month course of the study, Courtine says. "I was like, should we enroll this participant?"

These results establish a technological framework for improving neurological recovery and supporting the activities of daily living after spinal cord injury. I think you've got to try the impossible to make the possible possible. After a spinal cord injury many people lose other bodily functions such as sweating, bladder and bowel control, and sexual function.

The signal between the brain and the legs can become weakened, preventing movement. That communication process is blocked in people with major spinal cord injuries, because the nerves along that channel are damaged.

In Courtine's study, the three participants got 16 small electrodes implanted on the lower portion of their spinal cords.

However, neurostimulation for paralysis is still in its early stages, and scientists don't know exactly how it works to restore movement, says Kristin Zhao, an investigator at the Mayo Clinic and author of one of the September papers. All movement was under voluntary control; EES doesn't generate movement on its own.

The team is planning to conduct larger trials across Europe and United States within the next three years. It tapped into "residual connections that are not being used" after a spinal cord injury, the outlet noted. "The human nervous system responded even more profoundly to the treatment than we expected".

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