Swiss researchers enable paraplegics to walk
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Swiss researchers enable paraplegics to walk

Coya Vallejo Hägi
Zurich, on 08.02.2022

Researchers from Lausanne have implanted a new type of implant in the spine of paraplegics. Thanks to electrical stimulation, test subjects can now walk hundreds of meters on a walker.

Researchers at EPF Lausanne and the university hospital there have created a novel implant that allows paraplegics to walk again. The team, led by neuroscientist and professor Grégoire Courtine and neurosurgeon and professor Jocelyne Bloch, published their research findings in the journal Nature Medicine.

EPF Lausanne also published video footage of study participant Michel Roccati on its website. Roccati is a complete paraplegic and one of three subjects who received the novel implant.

How it works

The implant consists of a flexible foil that is fixed directly to the bone marrow under the vertebrae. Electrodes are attached to the foil, which come into precise contact with the nerve roots in the spinal cord. This provides access to the neurons that control the muscles. "This allows you to activate the spinal cord as the brain would naturally do, to stand, to walk, to ride a bike, to swim," Courtine explains on the EPF Lausanne website.

The implant is connected to a pacemaker that sits in the patient's abdomen and is controlled externally by a tablet. The tablet in turn communicates with two buttons attached to the paralyzed person's walker. When the one for the right side is pressed, an impulse is generated for these muscle groups. Coupled with a command from the brain, the paralyzed person can take a step with that leg.

The video shows how Roccati can walk alone on a rollator with the help of this device. He currently manages a distance of 500 meters this way. By summer, the study participant wants to be able to walk a full kilometer.

First results three years ago

Three years ago, the same team of researchers presented the results of their experimental therapy. At that time, they demonstrated the progress of their method on study participant David Mzee, who is not completely paraplegic. He, too, was able to get up from his wheelchair at times and walk up to a kilometer on a walker.

Further development of the implant, he said, works more precisely and can be better adapted to the individual needs of the paralyzed person. So that Courtine and his team would now be ready to develop the therapy for large-scale use. To make the treatment available to patients around the world, he said, they are working with a company called Onward Medical. How long this process will take, however, is still unclear.

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