Spinal Cord Implant Lets Paraplegics Walk Again, Scientists Say

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February 7, 2022

Three paralyzed men with severe spinal cord injuries were able to walk again days after receiving a spinal cord implant that stimulates muscles in the trunk and legs, a development that scientists believe could have wide application as a commercial product.

The scientists implanted 16-electrode devices in the epidural space of the men’s spine, between the vertebrae and the spinal cord membrane, CNN informed. The electrodes receive electrical currents from pacemakers implanted under the skin of their abdomens that are controlled wirelessly with a tablet, CNN said.

Michel Roccati from Italy, who lost the ability to walk in a motorcycle accident in 2017, said that now that he has the implant, he can get around town with a walker and stand up to shower.

“I am free,” Roccati said. “I can walk wherever I want.”

The study was led by Jocelyne Bloch of the Lausanne University Hospital and Grégoire Courtine of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The results were published Monday in the journal Natural medicine.

Electrical stimulation of the spine has been studied for years, but has not shown such immediate results.

In 2018, for example, the US Mayo Clinic said a man was paralyzed in a snowmobile accident. was able to walk again with a spinal implant, but only after 22 weeks of physical therapy.

The men in the recent study had lost all voluntary movement below the site of their injuries, but were able to take steps on a treadmill the day after surgery, CNN said.

“It is a very emotional moment, because [patients] they realize they can take a step,” Bloch said.

Physical therapy and three to four months of training were required before the men in the Swiss study could complete actions such as climbing stairs or walking 500 meters independently, CNN said.

“For the first time, we not only have an immediate effect, although training is still important, but people without sensation, without any movement, have been able to regain full standing and walk regardless of the lab,” Courtine said.

USA Today reported that the Swiss team hopes to start a clinical trial of 50 to 100 patients within a few years and eventually a 1,000-person trial to gain approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. If approved, the Technology could bring new hope to thousands of paralyzed people.

Courtine told USA Today that the research team’s next goal is to control the electrodes with a cell phone.

The researchers said the FDA has approved a “breakthrough device” designation for the technology, which would allow people to get coverage through Medicare’s Breakthrough Technology Coverage program, CNN said.

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