In science fiction and superhero films, regaining mobility for those who have suffered spinal cord injuries is as simple as coming up with some wacky device that gets around their impairment. Although it isn’t quite that simple in reality, researchers have developed a novel implant system that brings us one step closer to giving paralysed people with total spinal cord damage the capacity to walk again. Even while there is still much research to be done, the preliminary findings appear encouraging.
A research group lead by Grégoire Courtine, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), and Jocelyne Bloch, a professor and neurosurgeon at the Lusanne University Hospital/Centre hospitalier universitaire vaudois, developed the implant system (CHUV). When it assisted David Mzee walk with the aid of a walker after sustaining a partial spinal cord damage, it provided its first proof of concept in 2018.
In the ensuing four years since that proof-of-concept, there have been significant developments, as described by the NueroRestore research centre, which is managed by Courtine and Bloch. Today’s implant technology uses artificial intelligence to “stimulate the area of the spinal cord that activates the trunk and leg muscles.” In addition, the implants have been tested on three individuals who, unlike Mzee before his testing in 2018, had complete spinal cord injuries and were able to walk once more.
That’s astonishing enough on its own, but what’s even more amazing is how quickly patients reportedly resume movement after their implants are turned on. Once their implants were turned on, Courtine stated that “all three patients were able to stand, walk, pedal, swim, and regulate their torso movements in just one day,” which is undoubtedly encouraging.
That is not to imply that for these participants, the road to recovery has been simple. Courtine addressed the situation in a statement to Science Alert, adding, “It’s not that it’s a miracle straight away, not by far.” The participants in these experiments required “intensive training” before they were comfortable utilising the implants, as mentioned on NeuroRestore, but once they were turned on, it sounds like the results occurred.
One of the three patients who took part in this trial and the only one whose name has been released is Michel Roccati. About four months after his implants were turned on, according to Courtine, Roccati was able to walk using only a frame for balance. Today, Roccati is “able to stand for two hours – he goes almost one kilometre without stopping.” It appears like Roccati is getting close to reaching his objective of walking one kilometre because he said it in his profile of the technology NeuroRestore.
This technology might ultimately surpass what we see in movies in terms of impressiveness. For example, Colonel James Rhodes (War Machine) is paralysed during the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” and Tony Stark (Iron Man) creates a pair of robotic leg braces for him. Rhodes’ regained motor abilities are tethered to the leg braces, so if he isn’t wearing them, his paralysis returns. Nevertheless, they largely allow Rhodes to walk, move, and fight like he did before his injuries.