Completely Paralyzed People Walk Again After The Right Nerves Are Stimulated
By Mikelle Leow, 14 Nov 2022
Swiss scientists have taken a massive leap forward in a mission to help paralyzed patients walk again.
Researchers at Swiss group NeuroRestore reveal that they’ve correctly identified which neurons can reverse the paralysis of people with severe chronic spinal injuries. Their work builds upon previous studies affirming that electrical stimulation of the spine could trigger the signals to walk. However, the specific area for activation wasn’t known then.
The neuroscientists have now pinpointed this location after testing on mice and successfully restoring their ability to walk.
It turns out that the area that orchestrates walking comes from the nerve cells at the lower back. Having trauma there can disrupt the chain of signals between the spinal cord and the brain, causing the relevant neurons to lose their “walking” function even if they’re all present.
Image via EPFL
Armed with clarity on where to induce electrical impulses, the team surgically implanted a neurotransmitter into the spinal cords of nine volunteers who had severe paralysis after incurring damage in the area. Of the nine, three were completely paralyzed with no sensation in their legs.
Amazingly, all of the patients were able to move about again with a walker after five months—following a combination of stimulation and intensive physical therapy sessions, which were conducted up to five times a week.
Image via EPFL
Even after rehabilitation, the participants continued to show improvements in their walking.
“When you think about it, it should not be a surprise,” explains Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (via the Nature scientific journal). “Because in the brain, when you learn a task, that’s exactly what you see—there are less and less neurons activated [as you get better at it].”
The breakthrough isn’t just about the miracle of walking—scientists are also convinced that a clearer understanding of spinal circuitry could bring more answers for other concerns of the body, such as problems with control in the bladder and bowels, as well as sexual dysfunction.
“It would be really interesting to see whether those sorts of functions also can be improved with this technology,” says Marc Ruitenberg, a neurologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
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