Implant technology allows three to walk again

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Researcher Grégoire Courtine says that the exact timing and location of the electrical stimulation was crucial to being able to produce the intended movement. With the implant, Mzee can now walk over half a mile while using a walker.

This week's video comes from Switzerland where three patients with chronic paraplegia have walked again thanks to precise electrical stimulation of their spinal cords via a wireless implant. Both men had been told they would never walk again and were wheelchair bound.

Nerves in the spinal cord send signals from the brain to the legs. Within one week, this spatiotemporal stimulation had re-established adaptive control of paralysed muscles during overground walking.

The results, published in the journal Nature, come on the heels of two reports last month of similar therapies that were able to help people with major spinal cord injuries walk for the first time in years. And so the researchers set about understanding how the nervous system responded to movements in every joint in healthy individuals, building up a "map" of what these activation patterns looked like.

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. When an injury interrupts the connection between the spinal cord and brain, it prevents signals from reaching below the site of the injury, EES can help to bridge the gap by providing electrical signals to the spinal cord below the injury site.

The University of Technology Sydney will have a research centre capable of administering this treatment in trials within the next year, according to Professor Vissel. With EES switched on, he's able to walk using a walker.

"The thought is that somehow there's a command coming down from the brain telling the lower limbs to move, and somehow the stimulation is enabling that", she says.

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Because of that engagement, the treatment also resulted in voluntary movement being restored over time, as connections through the nervous system were re-established.

The study also focused only on patients who had retained some feeling in their lower body. "I was like, should we enroll this participant?"

Even within the small group of three patients, the results have been markedly different. Moritz says this staccato action might be why Courtine's patients reportedly showed stronger signs of recovery than those in previous studies did.

Courtine plans to move trials into Europe and America over the next five years, and to continue improving the precision on the technology.

The device - implanted around the injured men's spines - not only enhanced the signals between the brains and legs of the patients, it also prompted the regrowth of damaged nerves. 'Two of them can walk long distances with crutches, ' he adds.

The advance offered by this study is a "real breakthrough" in terms of restoring mobility to some paralyzed patients, even though they likely won't achieve fully independent walking, Oxley said.

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