New Spinal Implant Helps Paralyzed Patients Walk Again

Media playback is unsupported on your device                  Media caption'I always dreamed of walking again

'Oh my god. I'm walking like a horse, ' Tobler said. They were also able to control previously paralysed leg muscles even without the electrical stimulation.

The new study takes the medicine and technology of spinal stimulation even further in two ways. And in September this year, two separate papers reported breakthroughs in allowing patients with paralysis to walk, with assistance, as a result of EES. "There's a complex network of information coming back into the spinal cord from the leg about where your leg is in space". Such damage strips nerve fibers of the lining that helps them efficiently carry electrical signals, similar to the way a rubber sheath insulates a wire. "Selected configurations of electrodes are activating specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking". Researchers say the biggest challenge for the participants was to learn coordination of the intention to walk in their brain with the targeted electrical stimulation.

"The result was completely unexpected", he added, in a video released with the publication of the research in the journal Nature Thursday. The researchers developed a voice-activated system that allowed their patients to switch EES on and off themselves, and they calibrated it to different modes for walking, standing, or cycling on a hand-and-leg-powered tricycle. When Courtine had the implant fire continuously in the same patients, that coordination went away. "We were thus able to mimic in real time how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord", said EPFL neuroscientist Gregoire Courtine. "If you could stimulate those, you could try to cause movement".

"It was incredible to see all these patients moving their legs without electrical stimulation", said Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at the University Hospital of Lausanne, who helped lead the study.

"It was a very emotional moment the first time they walked", he said.

Previous trials have used so-called continuous electrical stimulation of the spine, which worked well in rats, but produced less impressive results in humans.


When the device is turned off, he can't move. That suggests the stimulation might be rewriting the connections between the brain and spinal cord, Moritz says.

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

"Voluntary muscle control improved tremendously within five months of training", said Courtine.

"These neural pathways are by and large still intact and viable", says Chad Bouton, the director of the Center for Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in NY, who wasn't involved in the latest study. "The patients - they have to do it".

Gert-Jan Oskam, who lost the use of both his legs in a cycling accident, had also made very limited progress in rehabilitation before the study. Something else also happened to the patients during the study, Bloch says. And others began having more sensation in parts of their upper bodies. In any case, being able to stand and walk a little has been a symbolic victory for the study participants.

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