Published: Sat, November 03, 2018
Medical | By Johnnie Horton

Breakthrough in medicine: the paralyzed patient began to walk again

Breakthrough in medicine: the paralyzed patient began to walk again

The men, who suffered sustained cervical spinal cord injuries, can now walk with the aid of crutches or a walking stick.

A man with a spinal-cord injury leaving him wheelchair bound has been able to walk thanks to a revolutionary new spinal implant.

"If you think about cutting the head off a chicken, it can still walk around". 'The collision of signals is confusing the brain and the patient, ' she says.

The implants use targeted electrical stimulation to specific parts of the leg, recreating the way the brain interacts with the body.

For example, last month the Mayo Clinic reported on the case of a 29-year-old paraplegic who now can walk about the length of a football field with assistance.

The two previous studies appeared in Nature Medicine and The New England Journal of Medicine.

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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. "The targeted stimulation must be as precise as a Swiss watch". And so the researchers set about understanding how the nervous system responded to movements in every joint in healthy individuals, building up a "map" of what these activation patterns looked like.

An unfortunate result of spinal cord injuries is that nervous system communication can become severely disrupted, resulting in the loss of neurological functions and ultimately, paralysis.

Continuous nerve stimulation overloads a person's proprioceptive system, researchers discovered. Moreover, they exhibited no leg-muscle fatigue, and so there was no deterioration in stepping quality. It can simultaneously deliver electrical impulses and pharmacological substances - whilst risks of rejection and/or damage to the spinal cord have been reduced. Unlike the findings of two independent studies published recently in the United States on a similar concept, neurological function was shown to persist beyond training sessions even when the electrical stimulation was turned off. After five months of physical therapy and training with the technology, all three were able to voluntarily control their leg muscles and walk for as long as an hour without muscle exhaustion.

"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.

A team including neurosurgeons and engineers used targeted electrical pulses to achieve the results, triggering individual muscles in a sequence, the way the brain would.

But none of the researchers would say that a full cure for paralysis is on its way, based on this research. "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". The real life procedures are not almost as extreme, but they have helped three patients get back on their feet through what it called patterned stimulation.

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