Global Health Asia-Pacific March 2022 March 2022 - Page 31

New device helps paralysed men walk again

The revolutionary technology gives hope to many wheelchair-users

Three men with paralysed legs because of injuries to their spinal cords can now move around with a walker or crutches after being implanted with electrical devices that send tailored signals to their lower bodies .

Researchers in Switzerland designed the implants which are placed on the spinal cord and can stimulate specific neurons , the cells that transmit impulses to make movements . Remote controls operated by the patients then activate the muscles needed for a variety of activities .
“ All three patients were able to stand , walk , pedal , swim , and control their torso movements in just one day , after their implants were activated ,” said Dr Grégoire Courtine , professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and one of the research leaders , in a press release . “ That ’ s thanks to the specific stimulation programmes we wrote for each type of activity .”
Improvements were even more significant after several months of training with the new system , when patients regained muscle mass and moved around more independently .
“ I ’ ve been through some pretty intense training in the past few months , and I ’ ve set myself a series of goals . For instance , I can now go up and down stairs , and I hope to be able to walk one kilometre by this spring ,” said Michel Roccati , one of the patients who became paralysed after a motorcycle accident four years ago , in a press release .
Onward Medical , the technology company that developed the implants , aims to commercialise the system and will start a trial in the next year to test it in 70 to 100 patients .
“ This is a monumentally huge step forward ,” Dr Ronaldo Ichiyama , a spinal cord injury expert at the University of Leeds , told New Scientist . “ However , we need to see this reported in more people before we get too excited .”
If the positive results hold up in larger studies , the technology will give some paralysed patients the hope of walking again for the first time ever . There are currently no treatments available for wheelchair users with spinal cord injuries .
But even if successful , the approach has a long way to go before it can be adopted for routine and widespread use , Professor Courtine told the BBC .
“ This is not a cure for spinal cord injury . But it is a critical step to improve people ’ s quality of life . We are going to empower people . We are going to give them the ability to stand , to take some steps . It is not enough , but it is a significant improvement ,” he said .
To find a cure , researchers will probably have to develop a process to regenerate the damaged spinal cord tissue to restore the pathway allowing the brain to set the muscles in motion . Such attempts are already under way , and in some cases researchers have managed to repair spinal cord injuries and reverse paralysis in mice . It remains to be seen whether the same results can be achieved in humans .
Professor Courtine told the BBC his technology could be used in combination with regenerative therapies once they hit the clinic .
PHOTO CREDIT : SWISS FEDERAL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY LAUSANNE ( EPFL ) & ONWARD ARC
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