Three paraplegics walk again one day after receiving an electronic implant

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by Esteban Tejedor

Posted on February 11, 2022

Three paraplegics walk again one day after receiving an electronic implant

Neuroscientists in Switzerland create a technology that enables people with spinal cord injuries to regain movement in a day.

Three people who had been left paraplegic after motorcycle accidents have managed to get back on their feet. It has been thanks to a surgical intervention to implant 16 electrodes directly on his spinal cord. All three participants had lost all ability to move in their lower limbs and trunk due to complete spinal severing.

"One day after I started practicing I saw that my legs were moving again; it was a very intense emotion", explains Michel Rocatti, one of the three patients.

The neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine, from the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (Switzerland), and the neurosurgeon Jocelyne Bloch, from the university hospital in the same city, lead the scientific team responsible for this achievement. In a four-hour operation, electrodes have been implanted that emit synchronized electrical pulses that mimic the signals that circulate along the spinal cord, and this links the brain with the lower limbs. In turn, the electrodes are connected to a computer with an artificial intelligence system that reproduces the impulses necessary to walk, ride a special bicycle or row a canoe (in the case of a patient without mobility in the lower chest). These are three of the activities that the participants in this study have managed to carry out, the details of which are published in Nature Medicine.

The electrodes stimulate not only the nerves that move the legs, but also the muscles of the abdomen and lower back. The participants were able to return to their feet immediately after the operation and took their first steps, initially suspended in a harness. Fine-tuning the movements took time to train, but finally, after about four or five months, Rocatti, for example, was able to walk down the street and go out for a drink at a bar, walking with a walker from which he can control the intensity and rate of electrical impulses. "When I use the device I feel better, I feel stronger and the pain associated with the wheelchair disappears", explained the patient.

 

Injuries that are no longer irreversible

The advance is added to those achieved by two US teams that use continuous electrical stimulation systems and that have also allowed some patients to walk after being paraplegic due to accidents. The most important idea behind this work is that some spinal cord injuries should no longer be considered irreversible.

The Swiss team has already treated nine people in what is currently only an experimental intervention for a very small number of injured people. But Courtine explains that her team hopes to start the first clinical trials with more patients in 2023, in part through Onward Medical, the company that she has created together with Bloch for the future commercialization of this technology. The trials will still take a few years of work. It is difficult because each spinal cord injury is very specific, practically unique, so it is necessary to develop a specific treatment for each one, as placing an electrode one or two millimeters higher or lower has enormous results. "We're going as fast as we can", says the neuroscientist.

 

Source: El País


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