One step closer to a cure for paralysis

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Since the discovery of penicillin, medicine has used the latest technologies available at the time to help cure diseases and ailments. Today, stem cell research promises to fundamentally change how treatments are designed and administered, but we are still years away from stem cell therapies becoming common.

Stem cells are, of course, not the only technology being researched and improved on. From cochlear implants to spinal implants, modern medicine is routinely achieving miracles.

One step closer to a cure for paralysis1

Swiss researchers, for example, recently made a major breakthrough in reversing paralysis – a breakthrough that promises to enable some paralysed people to ultimately regain independent movement. The clinical trial, published in the journal Nature, successfully allowed three men with “chronic paraplegia” to be able to walk short distances using crutches or a walker after targeted electrical stimulation was applied to their spinal cords using a wireless implant.

The men, who had been paraplegic for many years, were able to walk after undergoing five months of intensive rehabilitation involving extremely precise electrical stimulation of the lumbar spinal cord and weight-assisted therapy. “This is, I believe, the first time that people who have been paralysed for several years are now able to walk voluntarily over ground even outside the laboratory environment,” said study co-author Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at Switzerland’s EFPL technology institute.

All three of the men who participated in the trial were paralyzed from an injury at least four years earlier, but hadn’t regained movement after extensive rehabilitation, despite having some neural connections remaining at the injury site. The patients had to learn how to co-ordinate their own movements with the electrical stimulation, and the positive results are potentially even more promising for people who have been injured more recently. By starting rehab sooner, before muscles and nerves have atrophied as they usually do post-paralysis, the treatment might be even more effective.

At the start of the trial, the men had assistance from a contraption that supported their trunk and helped them remain upright. Within a week of starting the treatment, all three patients could walk while receiving spinal cord stimulation. After five months, two patients had progressed to walking hands-free with just 35% of their body weight supported in the harness. They even regained the ability to make movements without the electrical stimulation running. Two patients could move from sitting to standing and walk short distances with crutches. The third patient could voluntarily move his legs without stimulation.

Not only were the researchers thrilled with these results, they discovered an even more important effect of the stimulation: the completely unexpected spinal cord repair that they observed. The treatment helped strengthen neural connections between the brain and spinal cord, and the researchers also observed the growth of new nerve connections.

In the real world, it is difficult for the subjects of the study to walk more than a few paces because the signals from the implant become uncomfortable and therefore can't be used all the time. The system is also expensive and not reliable enough to be used outside of the laboratory for day-to-day use. Despite this, the treatment has actually reversed paralysis for the first time, providing hope for those who have been told that they will never walk again.