Stunning results see paraplegic patients walk again thanks to new implant

25 Sep 2018

Image: Magic mine/Shutterstock

There is now real hope that paraplegic patients could walk again thanks to a new device implanted in the spinal cord.

In what could be one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical device technology, a small number of paraplegic patients have found themselves able to walk again with a new implant.

According to The Guardian, two separate teams of researchers working with patients have tested a breakthrough device implanted into a patient that electrically stimulates their spine. Combined with physical training, three out of five paraplegic patients have been able to walk again, after years of being unable to do so following severe accidents that left them paralysed from the point of injury down.

One of the teams from the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville has published a paper detailing its findings. It revealed that it implanted an array of 16 electrodes in the lower back of four patients who had been paralysed a couple of years previously.

The device was then placed below the site of the original injury in a region that covers areas responsible for sending sensorimotor signals to the patients’ legs. A battery was then inserted into their abdominal wall, giving the researchers the ability to tweak the frequency, intensity and duration of the stimulation wirelessly.

Called epidural stimulation, this approach attempts to boost the existing, weakened signals from the brain to the spinal cord that on their own no longer have enough strength to let a person walk freely.

Listening to the little whisper

In essence, the study’s co-author, Dr Claudia Angeli, believes the device makes the spinal cord excitable once again, allowing the patient to walk when combined with effective physical training. “It is like it is more aware; it actually can listen to that little whisper from the brain that is still there and it can generate the motor pattern,” she said.

Of the four patients treated in this study, the greatest success was seen in those with a small amount of sensation remaining, with one patient being able to walk 90 metres without stopping after 85 weeks of training.

The second study, from the Mayo Clinic and the University of California Los Angeles, also showed success involving one patient being able to walk on a treadmill using hand rails.

The challenge now for both teams of researchers is to fine-tune the intensity of the stimulation in order to find the sweet spot that would not be too quiet for the signals to be unheard, and not too strong to force involuntary movement.

“A future direction that we are actually starting right now is to see if we target the epidural stimulation for [the] bladder itself; if we can actually improve the bladder control,” Angeli added.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic