Stimulation of the spinal cord using implanted pulse generator has allowed three men to regain control of their leg muscles and walk again with some assistance.
The new technique developed by Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute, and his team is called epidural electrical stimulation. It is still in its early stages but, so far, it has corrected spinal-cord injuries in patients of varying stages of paralysis.
Epidural Electrical Stimulation Therapy
Injuries to the spinal cord are caused by either a traumatic blow to the spine or a serious disease such as cancer. Because it disrupts the connection between the brain and the spinal cord, injuries can lead to motor and sensory deficits or, sometimes, paralysis.
However, in most cases, a person who has an injured spinal cord do not completely lose that connection between brain and motor neurons. There are some connections still intact, but might not be enough to allow mobility.
Courtine's epidural electrical stimulation works in such cases. During the study, they used electrical stimulation to give motor neurons extra excitement and boost the remaining connections to the brain.
The electric stimulation comes from a device implanted in the patient who experiences motor impairment due to spinal cord injury. First, the team had to map out areas of the spinal cord involved in walking. Then, the device sends electrical signals to the areas needed to facilitate movement. The exact timing and location of the electrical signal are crucial in producing the intended movement.
Improved Mobility In Paralyzed Patients
The study published in the journal Nature on Oct. 31 revealed that the technique has already demonstrated significant progress in people who have spinal cord injuries. Three patients have retained motor functions below their injuries.
"Our findings are based on a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms which we gained through years of research on animal models," stated Courtine. "We were thus able to mimic in real time how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord."
Study author Jocelyn Bloch of the Lausanne University Hospital boasted that all patients who were involved in the study were able to walk again with body weight support within one week.
"I knew immediately that we were on the right path," she added.