New Technology Enables Movement after Spinal Cord Paralysis

A devastating motorcycle accident left Michel Roccati with complete low-body paralysis from a traumatizing spinal cord injury.

The accident occurred in 2017.

With the good fortunes, the native Italian is walking again. However, Roccati said he could not move his legs and felt numb.

He could walk, stand, and climb stairs. “Everything I have in mind to train I can do with the stimulation,” Roccati briefed at a press hosted by Nature Medicine, which recently published the key findings. 

The WHO reports reveal that every year from 250,000 to a half million people across the globe suffer a threatening spinal cord injury, which is primarily the result of falls, vehicular accidents, or violence. People who do not suffer such injuries have a better life expectancy than those who have been through such damages. 

Roccati is among the three patients enrolled in Swiss effort, all men aged between 29 and 41 years. Each patient had been through an absolute spinal cord injury at least a year before the study’s launch. 

Dr. Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon & chief of the functional neurosurgery unit at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, said “, This means that they could not move the legs, and they did not have any sensation over the legs,” 

While briefing, Bloch notes that in 2020 the three patients experienced surgery at NeuroRestore in Lausanne to implant a pacemaker in the abdomen & electrodes directly onto the spinal cord. The electrodes are a crucial innovation, says Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist. 

They’re constructed to be permanent, and they are “precisely positioned to target all regions of the spinal cord that are relevant to activate trunk & leg muscles,” says Courtine.

The electrodes were paired with new software that allowed a highly personalized mapping of each patient’s spinal cord, Courtine told. 

The software offers a table-based interface that enables physical therapists and patients to set up semi-automated stimulation programs that allow various movements. These programs can be easily operated solely by patients through a tablet and small remote controls. In addition, it can interact wirelessly with the patient’s pacemaker.

“Thanks to this technology, all three patients, immediately after surgery, were able to stand up & walk,” Bloch said during the briefing. 

However, Bloch pointed out that motor control was not perfect initially. Courtine focused that gaining movement and posture after the surgery is a process, not a miracle. Patients demand a lot of physical support in the initial phase. Further, the recovery of sensation varies from one patient to another. 

“But what it does is enable immediate ability to train,” Courtine said. And the very fact, that the technology is portable and small, that training take place out in the real world. 

Bloch says that the technology is likely to work well among female paralysis patients. 

However, Bloch pointed out a drawback “, We need at least 6 centimeters of the healthy spinal cord under the lesion. So that’s where we implant our electrodes.”

Director of University of Louisville’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Center in Kentucky, Claudia Angeli acknowledged that the Swiss team’s work was “encouraging.” 

“This group is using a precise stimulation” signaling method, while alternative efforts try to allow motor control via direct stimulation of brain signals, she said. 

Such alternative methods “have shown similar results,” Angeli said. 

In the meantime, the Swiss team has a train in the works in the United States. The researchers commented that the U.S FDA approved “breakthrough devices” to accelerate the technology that could become commercially available. 

Now, Roccati, post nine months of Lausanne-based rehab, lives an independent life on his native land. But, he says, “I continued rehab at home, working alone, with all the devices.” He also said that there is an improvement daily.