Another spinal cord implant helped 9 paralyzed patients walk

And swim, bike, and even ride a canoe.
Derya Ozdemir

Thanks to a cutting-edge technology that restores motor function in just one day with carefully targeted electrical stimulation, a paralyzed man with a severed spinal cord has been able to walk again.

This is the first time someone who has had their spinal cord completely severed has been able to walk freely.

While this isn't a cure for spinal injury and the technology is still too complicated to be employed in everyday life, the pioneering research can nonetheless be lauded as a significant step toward enhancing the quality of life for millions of people around the world.

A game-changing spinal cord implant

The patient in question, Michel Roccati, was paralyzed after a motorcycle accident five years ago, which left his spinal cord completely severed. Although he has no feeling in his legs, he can now walk thanks to an electrical implant surgically attached to his spine which sends electrical pulses to his muscles, stimulating brain activity, a Swiss technology published in the journal Nature Medicine.

And Roccati is one of three patients involved in the Swiss initiative, all of who are men aged 29 to 41, and who had suffered a full spinal cord injury at least a year before the study's launch. In 2020, all of the patients underwent surgery at NeuroRestore in Lausanne to implant a pacemaker in the abdomen and electrodes straight onto the spinal cord. Then, the electrodes were linked with new software that allowed for a highly individualized mapping of each patient's spinal cord. This software also allows patients and physical therapists to set up semi-automated stimulation programs that allow for a wide range of movements.

Shortly after recovering from the surgery, all three patients were able to stand with support and walk with a walker. Their motor control was not perfect at first; however, for them to pedal or swim is now a possibility. Moreover, the stimulation didn't cause any pain or negative effects in any of the participants.

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While training is required for patients to become comfortable using the device, all three patients were able to stand, walk, pedal, swim, and control their torso movements in just one day.

As of this writing, nine patients have received the implant and have been able to walk again. However, these patients don't use it to help them walk in their daily lives since it's too sophisticated at this point. Instead, they use it to practice walking, which strengthens their muscles and improves their health while also restoring some movement.

A long way remains before this technology can be commonly used to help paralyzed people to walk again since it's invasive and expensive, and there haven't been any large-scale clinical trials. It is, nonetheless, getting there.

"This is not a cure for spinal cord injury. But it is a critical step to improve people's quality of life," Grégoire Courtine, who led the team that developed the technology at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), said. "We are going to empower people. We are going to give them the ability to stand, to take some steps. It is not enough, but it is a significant improvement." 

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