Swiss scientists have created a spinal cord implant that has allowed three fully paralysed men to be able to walk again with the technology hailed as revolutionary.
The spinal cord implant works by stimulating muscles to make movements through a specially designed walking frame that is controlled by the patient. The system was developed by Gregoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch at the NeuroRestore research centre in Lausanne, with Courtine stating that the simulation algorithms are based on “imitating nature”.
“Our soft implanted leads are designed to be placed underneath the vertebrae, directly on the spinal cord,” he said on the NueroRestore website.
“They can modulate the neurons regulating specific muscle groups [and] by controlling these implants, we can activate the spinal cord like the brain would do naturally to have that patient stand, walk, swim or ride a bike.”
One of the men who gained back his ability to walk was Italian Michel Roccati who became paralysed after a motorbike accident over four years ago. Doctors attached two small remote controls to Mr Roccati’s walker and connected them to a wireless tablet which would connect and send signals to a pacemaker in Mr Roccati’s abdomen, which then connected to the spinal implant.
PHD student and first author of the study at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and NeuroRestore in Lausanne Robin Demesmaeker talked to NewsCop about the implant and why it was only suitable for certain spinal injuries.
“Our therapy relies on the fact that the spinal cord is still intact at the implant location, which is lower than the injury level,” he said.
“This means that for restoring locomotion and trunk stability, at least the spinal segments T12-S2 should be below and not damaged by the injury,”
Mr Demesmaeker went on to say that that they are working to ensure this technology can become more readily available and accessible for more people in the future.
“We are actively working together with Onward medical, a company dedicated to bringing this technology and therapy to the market,” he said.
“This includes building a full system that is more user-friendly and that can be used by novice users and performing large-scale clinical trials that will show safety and efficacy of the therapy,”
“The results of those studies together with an in-depth cost-benefit analysis will form the basis for decisions on coverage by health insurances.”
While EPFL and NeuroResotre are taking steps to bring this technology to the masses, an ABC article stated that there have been 78,172 people who have suffered injuries from spinal cord simulators which may cause some concern in future patients. However, Mr Demesmaeker said that the benefits of the spinal implant outweigh any potential risk.
“Epidural spinal cord stimulation is a standard medical treatment for chronic pain,” he said.
“Its application for restoring mobility does not add any significant surgery- or device-related risks,”
“We strongly believe the benefits will largely outweigh the risks, given the results observed with our participants, the margin for further technological and therapeutic improvements, and the therapy’s potential to increase quality of life and independence,”
“However, the final risk-benefit analysis will require large-scale clinical trials in which all these aspects will be studied.”