Three paralyzed men were able to take their first steps after their accidents due to the spinal implants from doctors in Switzerland.
These implants were electrical devices that would send signals to their legs from their brains and help them walk. They were implanted into the base of spines of the men. The devices also helped the damaged nerves of the spine to regrow and restore some of the activities. This breakthrough could mean that individuals confined to wheelchairs after spinal damage could walk again say the researchers. The results of the experiment were published in the latest issue of the journal Nature and an accompanying article was published in the Nature Neuroscience.
The first patient was a 30 years old Swiss individual David M'zee. He had had a sporting injury seven years back that caused severe spine damage and led to paralysis waist down. In this experimental trial led by Dr Grégoire Courtine, an electrical spinal implant developed by a team at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) was inserted at the base of his spine. The surgery to insert the implant was performed by neurosurgeons led by Dr Jocelyne Bloch, from Lausanne University Hospital.
When the implant is switched on, he can walk for about half a mile say the researchers. Dr Courtine said that not only was Mr. M’zee walking, his spinal nerves were also found to be regrowing and repairing itself. This had been noticed earlier in animal experiments he explained. “When you stimulate the nerves like this it triggers plasticity in the cells. The brain is trying to stimulate, and we stimulate at same time, and we think that triggers the growth of new nerve connections,” said Courtine. This means that when the implant is switched off, he can still walk around eight paces. This is a huge improvement from before the implant was inserted says Courtine.
The other two men who have successfully walked after the implant was inserted are Gertan Oskan, a 35-year-old man from Netherlands who had had a road traffic accident seven years back and Sebastian Tobler, a 48-year-old German who had had a cycle accident a few years back. Both men had been told they would never walk again and were wheelchair bound. This implant helped them walk.
Chet Moritz at the University of Washington in Seattle wrote an accompanying article saying, “it now appears that many people can regain the ability to control their paralysed limbs and even walk again through the innovative combination of spinal stimulation and rehabilitation ... This stimulation combined with rehabilitation is actually helping to direct plasticity and healing of the nervous system around the injury.”
The team explained that the implant’s signals can become uncomfortable and so it cannot be kept switched on at all times. Also the movement seen is in controlled laboratory conditions. The team is modifying the device so that it could mean cure for paraplegics, they explain. Courtine says that if they could use the implant early after the injury, the results may be more encouraging. “This is an important first step, but the key now is to apply this very early after an injury when the potential for recovery is much larger,” he said.
Chet Moritz added in the accompanying article, “we should consider these results across three independent research groups as a breakthrough in the treatment of paralysis. The field of spinal cord injury is poised to take a giant leap forward in the treatment of what was until very recently considered incurable: paralysis.”
The team is planning to conduct larger trials across Europe and United States within the next three years.