- Swiss scientists have implanted a device in the severed spine of an Italian man that allows him to walk again.
- Experts say the implant is one of many medical advances that are helping people with paralysis regain mobility in their arms, legs and other body parts.
- The new technology also helps paralyzed people rebuild their muscles.
- They add that more research is needed to determine the durability of these devices.
A motorcycle accident severed Michel Roccati’s spine 5 years ago.
People like Roccati who have had an accident that completely separates part of their body from their brain are often given a prognosis that involves permanent loss of mobility.
In Roccati’s case, he lost all movement and feeling in his legs.
Yet Roccati now walks, thanks to Swiss researchers who developed an electrical implant that doctors surgically attached to his spine last year.
This is the first time that a person with a completely severed spine can walk again.
The brain sends signals to the legs via nerves in the spinal cord when a human decides to walk. When the spine is damaged, the signals are often too weak to create movement.
The new implant amplifies these signals, allowing the person to be mobile again.
The BBC spoke to Roccati at the Swiss lab where the implant was created.
“I get up, I walk where I want. I can climb stairs. It’s almost a normal life,” said the Italian. “I used to box, run and do physical training in the gym. But after the accident, I couldn’t do the things that I loved to do, but I didn’t didn’t let my mood deteriorate. I never stopped my rehabilitation. I wanted to solve this problem.
Nine people have received the implant so far.
None use it for walking in everyday life. They use it to practice walking at this stage, which exercises other muscles and provides improved movement.
Dr. Rahul Shah, a board-certified orthopedic spine and neck surgeon with Premier Orthopedic Associates in New Jersey, told Healthline the implant could be a game-changer when it comes to spinal injuries. vertebral.
“It builds on existing technology that has long been used for people with chronic pain. The new advance allows electrical impulses to go to the spine and then deliver the spine [a] succession of pulses so that the electricity of the legs and trunk is restored,” Shah said.
“In the past, this kind of electricity was used to confuse the body so it didn’t feel the same pain – like when someone has a problem with their leg and rubs their leg,” he said. -he explains.
“With this study, they made a few more changes,” Shah added. “It seems they made a miraculous improvement on people by getting them to use their lower limbs and trunk in areas that were previously paralyzed.”
“If this is reproducible, since this study shows small numbers, it could be extremely exciting for us to help those who have been injured by devastating spinal cord injuries,” he said. “It will help us keep the muscles active in those who have had injuries and potentially help them use their muscles more functionally.”
“Will they be as they were before their injury? At least in the initial experience, no,” Shah said. “But will they be much further than they are now if this research turns up on multiple people? Absoutely.”
Researchers say implant development is not a panacea for spinal injuries.
However, it’s part of a growing set of advances in recent years that offer hope.
“Epidural stimulation for spinal cord injuries is a game-changer,” said Dr. Uzma Samadani, president and CEO of US Neurosurgery Associates and neurosurgeon at Minneapolis VA Medical Center.
Samadani is also an Associate Professor of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology at the University of Minnesota.
“The field is still in its infancy, but it has already changed what we thought we understood about spinal cord injury,” she told Healthline. “For example, we used to classify an injury as ‘complete’ or ‘incomplete’ depending on how much function people still had after the injury. Now we know that this function can be “saved”.
Samadani noted that other new advances include treatments involving stem cells and small molecules that inhibit scar formation and prevent recovery.
“I would estimate that over 100 spinal cord injured patients in the United States have already been implanted with pacemakers, either as part of a trial for complex regional pain syndrome or off-label,” he said. she declared. “The hardest part is programming the pacemaker to be useful after implantation.”
“I think it gives a lot of hope to people who are currently paralyzed,” Samadani added. “The caution is that many have lost so much bone density and muscle mass that regaining the ability to walk is much more difficult.”
In November, researchers at Northwestern University announced that they had developed a new injectable therapy harnessing “dancing molecules” that can reverse paralysis and repair tissue after severe spinal cord injury.
A single injection into the tissues surrounding the spinal cord of paralyzed mice made them walk again in 4 weeks. The research has been published in the journal Science.
Scientists from the University of Washington announced in January 2021 that they had helped six paralyzed people in the Seattle area regain some mobility in their hands and arms using a method that combines physical therapy with a non-invasive method of spinal cord nerve cell stimulation.
The increased mobility lasted 3 to 6 months after the end of treatment. This research was published in the IEEE Xplore journal.
Shah said there will be regulatory and supply chain speed bumps delaying the availability of the implant.
More research is also needed on how the implant affects surrounding muscles and the longevity of the device itself.
But Shah said the new technology offers hope.
“We have to see what happens in 5 to 10 years,” he said. “Sometimes we get miraculous improvements, but the question is whether we can sustain them.”