• Researchers placed an implant on patients paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries
  • The stimulation allowed them to "stand, walk, cycle, swim and control trunk movements"
  • It's not a cure and still has a long way to go, but it helps improve patients' lives: researchers

A new technology has allowed several patients who had become paralyzed due to spinal cord injuries to stand and even walk again. The technology is said to be "too complicated" for everyday use, but it can certainly help improve quality of life.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people from across the world incur spinal cord injuries (SCI), many of which are from incidents such as motor crashes or falls. Depending on the severity and location of the injury, people with SCI may experience "partial or complete loss of sensory function or motor control of arms, legs and/or body," according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Michel Roccati, one of the individuals involved in the new research, was paralyzed after a motorbike accident that completely severed his spine five years ago, BBC reported.

For their research, published in the journal Nature Medicine, a team of researchers surgically placed an implant on three patients who had a spinal cord injury at least a year before the study's launch. None of them could move their legs or have sensation in the legs, study co-author Dr. Jocelyn Bloch, of Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, said at a press briefing, HealthDay reported.

This electrical implant was "positioned to target all the regions of the spinal cord that are relevant to activate trunk and leg muscles," Professor Grégoire Courtine of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), who led the team that developed the technology, said. Essentially, the implant boosts the signals from the brain to the legs.

Amazingly, the implant led to fast results, and none of the patients reported side effects or pain.

"Within a single day, activity-specific stimulation programs enabled these three individuals to stand, walk, cycle, swim and control trunk movements," the researchers wrote in their paper.

Although the patients "could not ambulate independently," it allowed them to engage in various activities for brief periods. Roccati, who was quite active before the accident, was able to walk and even go up the stairs after the surgery. He can stand for two hours and even walk for almost a kilometer without stopping when the stimulation is on, Courtine said. He also has "some recovery" when the stimulation is turned off but that is "to a limited extent."

"(E)verything I have in mind to train I can do with the stimulation," Roccati said at the press briefing. "I continued rehab at home, working alone, with all the devices. And I see improvements every day."

About nine people have so far received the implant and regained walking ability, BBC reported. David M'zee, who was among the first to receive it, can walk using a walker, thanks to the implant. His health improved to a point that he was able to have a baby with his partner. He is now even able to "race" with his 1-year-old child.

"It is great fun. It's the first time I have been walking with her in that way – she with her baby walker, I with my walker," M'zee told BBC.

Courtine clarified that there is still quite "a long way to go" before the technology can help paralyzed people to walk. Regaining movement after surgery is a "process" but the technology gave patients the "ability to train," the researcher added.

The Swiss team now has a trial "in the works" in the U.S.

"This is not a cure for spinal cord injury. But it is a critical step to improve people's quality of life," Courtine said. "We are going to empower people. We are going to give them the ability to stand, to take some steps. It is not enough, but it is a significant improvement."

Walking, feet
Representation. Pixabay