Medicine

Electro-stimulation helps paraplegic patients walk again

Electro-stimulation helps paraplegic patients walk again

They even built personalized model spinal cords to lie in an electricity-conducting salty fluid, allowing the team to work out precisely where each electrode needed to be inserted during surgery.

It's the culmination of "more than a decade of careful research", Gregoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who helped lead the research, told AFP. When Courtine had the implant fire continuously in the same patients, that coordination went away. "Now I can walk short distances with the help of electrical stimulation and even without electrical stimulation", he says.

The most surprising moment occurred, he added, when the implants were switched back off again: some of the patients' recovered abilities persisted, even in the absence of those helpful electrical pulses.

The study published in the journal Nature on October 31 revealed that the technique has already demonstrated significant progress in people who have spinal cord injuries. "I knew immediately that we were on the right path", said CHUV neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch, who surgically placed the implants in the patients.

When the device is turned off, he can't move. "We were thus able to mimic in real time how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord".

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

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

"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. This breakthrough could mean that individuals confined to wheelchairs after spinal damage could walk again say the researchers. He is also starting a new company called GTX Medical to continue helping patients after the study, and to promote the technology. 'And [Tobler] needs a walker.' Courtine built a mobile app that allows the patients to turn their stimulators on or off remotely, so they could train at home after the study ended. Something else also happened to the patients during the study, Bloch says. Three patients have retained motor functions below their injuries.

He and Bloch have founded a start-up that will refine the treatment and test it on people shortly after spinal cord injuries, when the technique is likely to be more successful. 'The healing has not only been for walking, ' she says.

One positive sign about the study is that the electrical stimulation was not simply moving the muscles by itself, in the way that sending current through a dead body will make it twitch, but that it relied on the subjects attempting to move their limbs. 'Someone has to hold me for security reasons, although I should be able to have a barbecue standing on my own in the near future, ' he said in a written statement.