A device that allows patients with total spinal cord injuries to stand, walk, and even participate in recreational activities has been devised by Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch of HBP partners EPFL and CHUV
FREMONT, CA: Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch of HBP partners EPFL and CHUV have created a device that allows patients with total spinal cord injuries to stand, walk, and even participate in recreational activities such as swimming, cycling, and canoeing. In late 2018, the photographs made news worldwide of David Mzee, who was partially paralyzed after a sports accident, who left his wheelchair and began walking with the help of a walker. This was the first confirmation that Courtine and Bloch's technique, which employs electrical stimulation to reawaken spinal neurons in patients, could function.
Courtine, an EPFL professor, and Bloch, a professor, and neurosurgeon at CHUV, headed a research team that improved their system with more complex implants controlled by artificial intelligence software. These implants can engage the trunk and leg muscles by stimulating the portion of the spinal cord that holds them. Three patients with total spinal cord injuries could walk outside the lab owing to this innovative technology. Further, the new soft implanted leads are designed to be placed directly on the spinal cord beneath the vertebrae. They can influence the neurons that control specific muscle groups and trigger the spinal cord. The brain naturally makes the patient stand, walk, swim, or ride a bike, for example, by regulating these implants.
Michel Roccati, an Italian man, crippled in a motorcycle accident four years ago, braved the chilly wind to test the device outdoors in central Lausanne last December. Bloch had recently put the new, implanted lead on his spinal cord during a surgical operation. He was accompanied by scientists from Courtine and Bloch's .NeuroRestore research facility, which assisted him in the preparation of the demonstration. Michel's walker was fitted with two small remote controllers wirelessly connected to a tablet that relayed the impulses to a pacemaker implanted in his abdomen. The pacemaker then sends the signals to a spinal cord planted in Michel, which stimulates specific neurons and helps him move. Michel snatched up the walker and walked away when he was ready. With the definite aim of taking a step forward with his left leg, he hit the button on the right side of the walker. His left foot rose as if by magic and landed a few centimeters ahead of him. His right foot moved forward after doing the same thing with the button on his left side. He was finally walking.