"It's an fantastic feeling", says David Mzee, whose left leg was paralyzed in 2010.
A man with a spinal-cord injury leaving him wheelchair bound has been able to walk thanks to a revolutionary new spinal implant.
EPFL scientists had originally managed to get paralysed rats to walk on their own again using a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation. 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.
Not long ago, the idea that a paralyzed for many years, the man would walk again was only a dream.
The difference lies in how constant the electrical stimulation is. When a command from the brain hits a spinal cord injury, that electrical signal dissipates and becomes too weak to effectively activate muscles. In most spinal cord injuries the spine is not severed, but bruised.
In rodents, cats, and even monkeys, EES has allowed "standing, walking in various directions, and even running", write Courtine and his colleagues.
Second, and even more important, the research team fine-tuned the stimulation to work in conjunction with the patients' proprioceptive sensory system. It is still in its early stages but, so far, it has corrected spinal-cord injuries in patients of varying stages of paralysis. Then the pattern of electrical signals was calibrated for each individual.
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"All the patients could walk using body weight support within one week". The researchers administered the EES in bursts that were controlled wirelessly.
"The participants are constantly challenged to voluntarily generate the appropriate leg movements", says co-author Karen Minassian.
Because of that engagement, the treatment also resulted in voluntary movement being restored over time, as connections through the nervous system were re-established. This included one person previously had no movement in his legs, and one whose left leg had been completely paralyzed, according to Nature. This means that when the implant is switched off, he can still walk around eight paces.
The study also focused only on patients who had retained some feeling in their lower body.
"It was a very emotional moment the first time they walked", he said. But for now, the stimulators are only being used in a small number of patients in research settings. This is a huge improvement from before the implant was inserted says Courtine. Understanding the results in a larger population is a crucial next step. In our method, we implant an array of electrodes over the spinal cord which allows us to target individual muscle groups in the legs.
And essential, they add, is ensuring that the treatment translates outside of the hospital.
All patients involved in the STIMO (STImulation Movement Overground) study recovered voluntary control of leg muscles that had been paralysed for many years.