'Electrical stimulation helps three paralysed patients walk again'

Multiple combined images of a man starting out in a wheelchair progressing to using a wheeled walker

Multiple combined images of a man starting out in a wheelchair progressing to using a wheeled walker

The research, by scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), has been published in two studies in the journals Natureexternal link and Nature Neuroscienceexternal link.

He said that after two days, the new movement became nearly natural to the subjects and within a week, they were able to walk with limited assistance. 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 three patients had electrodes surgically implanted at the back of their spinal cords, which were connected to a wireless electrical pulse generator.

One of the scientists on the project says that years of animal study allowed them to create a stimulation system that mimics how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord.

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.

"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".

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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. In most spinal cord injuries the spine is not severed, but bruised.

By the end of the study, the paralysed study participants could walk, with the help of bodyweight support, for over a kilometre on a treadmill thanks to the electrical spinal cord stimulation. The researchers administered the EES in bursts that were controlled wirelessly.

When the electric device is switched off, Mzee can still walk up to eight paces, the first-ever recording of this in a chronic spinal cord injury. He is also starting a new company called GTX Medical to continue helping patients after the study, and to promote the technology. I'm surprised at what we have been able to do.

"The thought is that somehow there's a command coming down from the brain telling the lower limbs to move, and somehow the stimulation is enabling that", she says.

"It was the first time I've seen the recovery of voluntary movement without stimulation, which is true neurological recovery", Professor Courtine said.

Even within the small group of three patients, the results have been markedly different. All patients involved in the study recovered voluntary control of leg muscles that had been paralyzed for many years. Moreover, they exhibited no leg-muscle fatigue, and so there was no deterioration in stepping quality. BBC news has made research in this aspect and they had got special access to the patients who were getting treated in the clinic.

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