Innovative Spinal Implant Allows Paralyzed Patients to Walk Again

Electrode sensors inside an implant are helping spinal cord injury sufferers regain movement in their legs.

Advances in medical technology have been allowing doctors to take a more proactive stance in terms of spotting illnesses or conditions before they appear, covering a range as diverse as Alzheimer's Disease or skin cancer detection. More critically, however, we are also witnessing the emergence of methods that allow doctors to reverse the effects of certain chronic medical conditions.

The work of two teams of scientists could restore hope for those suffering from the effects of an impaired spinal cord. Specifically, their work involve the trial of a radical spinal cord implant on a small and select group of paraplegic patients.

The four patients involved all fit the profile of (1) lack of improvement of symptoms even with locomotor training, and (2) being within a 2.5 to 3.3 year time frame of post-traumatic spinal injury. In all, a total of 16 sensors embedded in the innovative spinal implant were employed in the lower spine region of each patient in the study.

The team achieves promising results

The team's work involved the use of a method called epidural stimulation, which they believe, combined with rehabilitation training, "may allow the restoration of some volitional movement below the level of spinal injury and may result in the ability to stand independently". 

Dr. Claudia Angeli, study co-author and researcher of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville, reported to The Guardian the excitement the team felt in seeing the direct and immediate impact that the implants had with the patients: “It is incredible to be able to be in there and actually see them taking their first steps,” she said, adding “It is an emotional time for the individual [themselves] because it is something that they have been told they are never going to be able to do again."

This research is only the beginning

Although the team reported a successful outcome of their work, they also acknowledge that this implant is a means to improve the overall mobility and quality of life of patients, not offer a cure.

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“There’s no real treatment for people with this type of injury,” shares Susan Harkema with The Verge, senior author on the paper “This isn’t taking them back to before their injury, but it’s giving them significant, incremental return of function, and health — and that can make their daily lives substantially better.”

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Still, the main objective has been met. In dramatic form, the patients took steps for the first time following their injuries, achieving something they were not sure they would ever be able to achieve.

Looking at the big picture, this means that the medical community will begin to change the way it looks at catastrophic spinal cord injury and the possibilities of regaining mobility thanks to the contributions of these scientists and generous participants. 

Details about the study appear in a paper, titled "Recovery of Over-Ground Walking after Chronic Motor Complete Spinal Cord Injury", which was published September 24th in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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