Thanks to precise electrical stimulation of their spinal cords via a wireless implant, three patients with chronic paraplegia are able to walk over ground again and, with sufficient training, even without the stimulation, said a statement from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) on Wednesday.
Two other paraplegics who received the implant are also able to move their legs, to varying degrees, and their prognosis is promising.
"If you think about cutting the head off a chicken, it can still walk around".
Luckily, the emerging types of neurostimulators are showing some signs that they may be able to help restore such functions, as well.
The researchers had to adjust the details for each of the three patients in the study, adapting to the individual measurements of each person's spinal cord.
The new study takes the medicine and technology of spinal stimulation even further in two ways.
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The device - implanted around the injured men's spines - not only enhanced the signals between the brains and legs of the patients, it also prompted the regrowth of damaged nerves.
Using precisely timed electrical pulses, the scientists stimulated the region of the spinal cord that the brain was also trying to activate when each patient tried to walk.
"If we can stimulate the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system at the same time, the additive effects could restart touch perception and movement in some people". "There's a complex network of information coming back into the spinal cord from the leg about where your leg is in space". Moreover, they exhibited no leg-muscle fatigue, and so there was no deterioration in stepping quality. "After a few months, participants regained voluntary control over previously paralysed muscles without stimulation and could walk or cycle in ecological settings during spatiotemporal stimulation", Fabien Wagner and his colleagues wrote in the study. When an injury interrupts the connection between the spinal cord and brain, it prevents signals from reaching below the site of the injury, EES can help to bridge the gap by providing electrical signals to the spinal cord below the injury site.
These sessions helped to trigger activity-dependent plasticity, which is the nervous system's inherent ability to reorganise nerve fibres.
"I can support more and more weight on my legs and have more and more control with my legs", said Tobler, 47, who had both legs completely paralyzed after a 2013 mountain biking accident.
The patients were given watches that adapt the electrical stimulation to their needs based on voice commands. "Our goal is to develop a widely accessible treatment", adds Courtine. "They might not walk around, but they will feel better and will have a lot of health benefits associated with this mobilization of their body". BBC news has made research in this aspect and they had got special access to the patients who were getting treated in the clinic. "This is the first possible treatment that can potentially change the course of rehabilitation outcome in terms of walking". 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 Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation has more about functional electrical stimulation.