Implant helps 3 spinal cord injury patients walk again

Alan Condon -  

Swiss researchers have developed an implant that has enabled three patients with complete spinal cord injuries to stand, walk and swim again.

The neurostimulation device uses electronic implants and artificial intelligence to help paraplegic patients recover their autonomy.

Research published Feb. 7 in Nature Medicine found the device works faster than prior attempts at electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. Instead of targeting pain receptors like current spinal cord stimulators, the technology uses electrodes that send personalized signals to the spinal nerves responsible for controlling leg and trunk movements.

By sending electrical signals to the spine through a patient's sides — rather than stimulating nerves through the back of the spine to manage chronic pain — the device allows for specific targeting and activation of spinal cord regions.

"Within a single day, activity-specific stimulation programs enabled these three individuals to stand, walk, cycle, swim and control trunk movements," according to Grégoire Courtine, PhD, and Jocelyne Bloch, MD, the researchers who led the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology study. Improvement in the patients with spinal cord injuries continued in the following days and months.

"Our breakthrough here is the longer, wider implanted leads with electrodes arranged in a way that corresponds exactly to the spinal nerve roots," Dr. Bloch said. "That gives us precise control over the neurons regulating specific muscles."

The three patients in the study were men between the ages of 29 and 41. All three were injured in motorcycle accidents. A touchscreen tablet allowed them to operate the device themselves, and all three regained the ability to walk and participate in more active activities, such as swimming and cycling, after six months.

Drs. Bloch and Courtine are now working with Onward Medical, a company they helped found, to commercialize the technology.

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