Breakthrough Treatment Helps Paralyzed Patients Walk with Assistance

Breakthrough Treatment Helps Paralyzed Patients Walk with Assistance

Every good thing can be improved, so research about spinal cord electrical stimulation continues. In ongoing tests of the system, the patients were able to adjust the length and speed of their strides and to walk on a treadmill for an hour-traveling the equivalent of up to one kilometer. But unlike previous trials, two of Courtine's patients were able to stand and walk with crutches outside of the clinic without the implant activated.

A man with a spinal-cord injury leaving him wheelchair bound has been able to walk thanks to a revolutionary new spinal implant.

In a video published by the Swiss research institute École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, lead researcher Grégoire Courtine says that his team studied technology that "allows us to stimulate the spinal cord as the brain would naturally".

The handful of results "is giving us a lot of confidence that this solution is real and even people with complete paralysis can regain stepping movements", says Chet Moritz, an associate professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Washington, who wrote an accompanying editorial in Nature about the most recent findings. But an important factor in this experiment is the implants aren't working the patients' legs for them. He suffered a severe spinal injury that took place seven years earlier in a sporting event; all past rehabilitation attempts were unsuccessful.

But scientists have been hopeful that these nerve pathways in the spinal cord can be repaired by tapping into certain populations of nerve cells, called neural circuits, that are found in the spinal column.

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After several months of training with the targeted pulses however, "our three participants were able to activate their previously paralyzed muscles without electrical stimulation", 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.

Continuous nerve stimulation overloads a person's proprioceptive system, researchers discovered. Courtine thinks the spine might be regenerating nerve fibers that cross the injury like new lanes being built around a broken highway section. Each electrode was precisely placed to activate a specific group of leg muscles.

A team including neurosurgeons and engineers used targeted electrical pulses to achieve the results, triggering individual muscles in a sequence, the way the brain would. The men also received two wearable sensors, one on each foot, that delivered additional stimulation.

All the people in the study were able to recover voluntary control of leg muscles that had been paralyzed for many years. Thus, it seems the months of intense physical therapy and use of the implanted stimulator are actually causing the spinal cord to heal-but what that apparent healing looks like is up for debate.

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