February 08, 2022

Nerve Implant Helps Paralysed Patients Walk

The act of walking, or using our legs, is something we as humans only come to appreciate once the ability is gone – but a new spinal cord implant is set to help those who have lost the use of their lower extremities.

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland have recently published their findings involving epidural electrical stimulation (EES), and the results are promising.

Three men between the ages of 29 and 41 each suffered separate motorbike accidents that left them without the use of their legs. They were selected as test subjects for the experimental device.

The EES implant is a flexible paddle of electrodes, fitted for each patient, and placed between the spinal cord and backbone vertebrae. It then stimulates the nerves in the back and legs directly.

After the patients underwent the surgery for their implants, they were immediately “able to stand up and to step [with support],” according to surgeon and project co-leader Jocelyne Bloch of Lausanne University Hospital.

Each electrical pulse relies on timing, and so physical training is required to get the co-ordination on par. The implant has software installed to fine-tune natural movements within months of rehabilitation.

“By controlling these implants, we can activate the spinal cord like the brain would do naturally to have the patient stand, walk, swim or ride a bike, for example,” explained study author and co-leader Gregoire Courtine.

Five months later, all three individuals can stand for extended periods and have gained greater motor control; they also began taking part in leisure activities like boxing and canoeing to test out their new freedom.

The EES is not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction towards a bright new future, and these patients can stand tall knowing that they have pioneered the way for others.

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