A new study led by a Swiss research institute École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne has found that electrical stimulation with a wireless spinal implant could enable chronic paraplegia patients to walk again with support.
The STIMO study, conducted in alliance with the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), involved three patients with cervical spinal cord injuries that were sustained many years ago.
When treated with targeted electrical stimulation to the lumbar spinal cord along with weight-assisted therapy, the participants regained movement in their paralysed leg muscles and were able to walk over ground with the aid of crutches or a walker.
In September, a study conducted by researchers in the US found that use of an epidural stimulator and physical therapy could help paralysed patients regain some movement.
The Swiss researchers observed that the spinal implant enabled patients to voluntarily control previously paralysed leg muscles even when the electrical stimulation was turned off. This occurred after training for a few months.
EPFL neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine said: “Our findings are based on a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms which we gained through years of research on animal models. We were thus able to mimic in real time how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord.
“The exact timing and location of the electrical stimulation are crucial to a patient’s ability to produce an intended movement. It is also this spatiotemporal coincidence that triggers the growth of new nerve connections.”
During the latest study, the researchers delivered precise stimulation by implanting an array of electrodes over the spinal cord. These implants are said to have facilitated the targeting of individual muscle groups in the legs.
According to the team, the new rehabilitation protocols are backed by targeted neurotechnology and improved neurological function by enabling patients to train their natural over ground walking capabilities.
Based on these findings, medical device startup GTX medical will create a tailored neurotechnology to advance the rehabilitation protocols into a treatment for clinical use.