Posted on Nov 02, 2018, 4 p.m.
3 men told they would never walk again are now able to once more thanks to doctors in Switzerland, clinical trial results as published in the journal Nature.
Electrical devices developed by a team from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne were implanted around their spines to boost signals from their brains to their legs, and as an unexpected bonus also helped damaged nerves in the spinal cord to regrow. Researchers hope that this will enable other paralysed people to eventually regain independent movement.
The first patient treated with a 7 year old severe spinal injury is now able to walk for more than a half a mile with the implant turned on, and is up to 8 paces when it is off. The implant works with nerves in the spinal cord that send signals from the brain to the legs. When the spine is damaged signals become to weak to create movement, the implant boosts these signals enabling the patient to walk, and some of the damaged nerves can be restored by this movement.
The team was surprised to find that the implant did more than enable patients to walk when they observed spinal cord repair. Previously they had observed nerve fibres regrowing in animals reconnecting the brain to the spinal cord, but were astonished to see the improvement in a human. For the first time there is now a record of walking with the implant on and off in a chronic spinal cord injury.
The second paralysed patient to be treated is now beginning to regain some movement. The third a former cyclist is now back on a specially adapted bike powered mostly by his hands, but also partly by his legs; both men being able to walk again to varying degrees.
Signals from the implant can become uncomfortable so it can’t be used all the time, the system is also expensive and not reliable enough to be used outside of laboratory settings for day to day use. This is not yet a cure, but well on its way, inspired by movement without the device on.
Researchers believe the system will improve and restore some movement to people who have lost hope of ever walking again. Larger trials will being soon in Europe and in the USA in 3 years. It is hoped that these trials will go well to enable the system to become more widely available.
Materials provided by:
Note: Content may be edited for style and length.