Three paraplegics who sustained serious spinal injuries years ago have been given the ability to walk again, courtesy of electrical stimulation of their spinal cords using a wireless implant. Called STIMO (Stimulation Movement Overground), the technology allowed people who had long since lost the use of their legs to regain control of them.
“In our method, we implant an array of electrodes over the spinal cord, which allows us to target individual muscle groups in the legs,” Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon involved in the study, said in a statement. “Selected configurations of electrodes are activating specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking.”
The study was led by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), both based in Switzerland. It represents a potentially massive leap forward for rehabilitation technology. Participants required only one week of usage before they regained limited ability to walk with body weight support. After several months, they were able to exchange this for other less-supportive devices such as walkers or crutches.
Best of all, even after the electrical stimulation was switched off, the participants retained the progress they had made over the course of the experiment.
A paper describing the work, titled “Targeted neurotechnology Restores Walking in Humans with Spinal Cord Injury.” was recently published in the journal Nature. A medical startup called GTX, co-founded by Jocelyne Bloch and another researcher named Grégoire Courtine, will now aim to turn this work into a treatment that’s available to patients in hospitals and clinics.
“We are building next-generation neurotechnology that will also be tested very early post-injury, when the potential for recovery is high and the neuromuscular system has not yet undergone the atrophy that follows chronic paralysis,” Courtine said in a statement.
As impressive as it undoubtedly is, this work is not the only example of electrical stimulation yielding impressive results. Recently, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the U.S. demonstrated how an implanted electrical stimulator was able to help a man paralyzed four years earlier in a snowmobile accident to regain the ability to stand — and even walk the length of a football field.