Spinal implant reverses paralysis
Just before Christmas an Italian man, Michel Roccati, stood up and walked on the streets of Lausanne, Switzerland. Four years before his spinal cord was completely severed in a motorcycle accident. He had been paralysed from the waist down for life.
He walked again with the aid of a device which had been implanted in his back. The system enables patients with a complete spinal cord injury to stand, walk and even perform recreational activities like swimming, cycling and canoeing.
Developed by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital, the system uses electrical stimulation to reactivate spinal neurons. This restores function to limbs which may have been dormant for years.
Bioengineering overcomes spinal cord injury
In a paper published in February in Nature Medicine, three patients with complete spinal cord injury were shown to be able to walk again. Implanted leads are placed underneath the vertebrae, directly on the spinal cord.
There they can modulate the neurons regulating specific muscle groups. By controlling the implants, the spinal cord can be activated in the same way the brain would do naturally. This enables the patient to be able to stand, walk, swim or ride a bike.
Mr Roccati was one of three paralysed patients who participated in the small trial. The device worked so well that all three patients were able to stand up and take steps almost as soon as they had recovered from implantation.
The inventors established a company, NeuroRestore, to develop a research centre in Lausanne. There they attached two small remote controls to Mr. Rocatti’s walking aid. These were also connected wirelessly to a pacemaker in Mr. Rocatti’s abdomen.
The pacemaker relayed the signals to the spinal lead that stimulated specific neurons, causing movement in the legs. When Mr. Rocatti pressed the button on the right side of the walker, with the intention of taking a step forward, his left leg rose and fell a few centimetres ahead.
The first steps on a long journey
He then repeated the process with the button on his left side and his right foot moved forward too. This was a huge improvement on prototype versions, which had required many months of training for patients to learn how to walk again.
Although training is needed, the device can be programmed to support different activities. Patients in the study were shown to be able to stand and walk, as well as to swim and cycle too.
Even though all three patients were mobilised on the first day they used the device, the longer-term outcomes are even more astonishing. All three patients were able to regain muscle mass, move around independently and take part in social activities.
“The first few steps were incredible, a dream come true” says Mr. Roccati. “I can now go up and down stairs, and I hope to be able to walk one kilometre by this spring.”
The device is now being commercialised by ONWARD Medical, a businesses listed on Euronext, to hopefully improve the lives of thousands of people worldwide. That may take some years, but the prospect of paralysis becoming reversible through bioengineering is truly astonishing.
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