After a motorcycle accident in , Michel Roccati, 30, wasn’t expected to be able to stand on his own ever again, let alone walk. But on a sunny day in , at the Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, he walked across a promenade, thanks to the help of perfectly timed electrical impulses in his spine.
Two years after his injury, Roccati had been one of three men with paralyzing spinal cord injuries to enroll in a trial that allowed them to test-run a prototype of a modified medical device that could help people like them regain movement.
The surgically-implanted device, called a spinal cord stimulator, has been used for decades to treat chronic pain. Scientists modified the technology, which sends electrical signals to select areas of the spinal cord to help people who are paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury stand and even walk. (In people without spinal cord injuries, these electrical signals are sent by the brain to the spinal cord when a person wants to move their limbs.)
In a study, results of which were published Monday in Nature Medicine, Swiss researchers used a version of the device to do just that.
Within hours of starting therapy with the device, all three men could move their legs. After just one day of practicing specific activities, they were able to stand, walk with the help of a walker, cycle and swim. With the help of therapy, they were also able to do all that outside the lab, in the real world.
“It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work, but it’s a dream for most people in this group,” said Dr. Jocelyne Bloch, an associate professor of neurosurgery at Lausanne University Hospital, who co-authored the research.
Instead of targeting pain receptors like traditional spinal cord stimulators, the novel device uses personalized electrodes that target the nerves in the spine that control leg and trunk movements.
According to Dr. Eellan Sivanesan, director of neuromodulation at Johns Hopkins Medicine, most research thus far on spinal cord stimulation has been conducted in animals, and translating it to humans has been very challenging. He was not involved in the new research.