Spinal cord implant allows people with spinal cord injury to walk again, scientists say

February 7, 2022

Three men paralyzed with serious spinal cord injuries were able to walk again days after receiving a spinal cord implant that stimulates the trunk and leg muscles — a development scientist thinks could have wide application as a commercial product.

Scientists implanted 16-electrode devices in the epidural space on the men’s spines, between the vertebrae and the spinal cord membrane, CNN reported. The electrodes receive electrical currents from pacemakers implanted under the skin of their abdomens, which are controlled wirelessly with a tablet computer, CNN said.

Italy’s Michel Roccati, who lost his ability to walk in a motorcycle accident in 2017, said that now that he has the implant, he can move around town on a walker and get up to take a shower.

“I’m free,” Roccati said. “I can walk wherever I want.”

The study was led by Jocelyne Bloch of the University Hospital of Lausanne and Grégoire Courtine of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The results were published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.

Electrical stimulation of the spine has been studied for years, but has not produced such immediate results.

For example, in 2018, the Mayo Clinic in the United States said a man paralyzed by a snowmobile accident was able to walk again with a spinal implant, but only after 22 weeks of physical therapy.

The men in the recent study had lost all voluntary movement below the site of their injuries, but were able to take steps on a treadmill the day after surgery, CNN said.

“It’s a very emotional moment because [patients] realize they can step,” Bloch said.

Physical therapy and three to four months of training were needed before the men in the Swiss study could complete actions such as climbing stairs or walking 500 meters independently, CNN said.

“For the first time, not only have we had an immediate effect — although training is still important — but individuals with no sensation, no movement at all, have been able to fully stand and walk again independently of the lab,” he said. Courtine.

USA Today reported that the Swiss team hopes to start a clinical trial with 50-100 patients within a few years and eventually a 1,000-person trial to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. If approved, the technology could offer new hope to thousands of paralyzed people.

Courtine told USA Today that the research team’s next goal is to control the electrodes with a cell phone.

The researchers said the FDA approved a “breakthrough devices” designation for the technology, which would allow people to receive coverage through the Medicare Coverage of Innovative Technology program, according to CNN.

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