In brief: In what is a first for the medical world, a 63-year-old man with advanced Parkinson's disease has been given an experimental spinal implant that allows him to walk again without falling. Marc Gauthier, from Bordeaux, France, said he was often unable to leave his home and fell several times each day. Now, he can walk for miles.
Marc was diagnosed with Parkinson's more than two decades ago. It led to mobility issues such as loss of balance and freezing of gait, eventually forcing him to give up his job as an architect three years ago when the condition made walking extremely difficult. He could not climb stairs and would fall five to six times per day.
A Swiss medical team of neuroscientists and neurosurgeons designed an implant, described in Nature magazine, that helps restore signals to the leg muscles from the spine. Marc said the implant has allowed him to walk more normally and regain his independence.
"There were things I could redo, some easier, some more difficult, but I could redo many things I couldn't before," Marc said.
"For example, walking into a store would be very difficult, impossible, before, because of the freezing of gait that will often happen in those environments. And now it just doesn't happen anymore – I don't have freezing anymore."
While Marc's brain still sends the instructions to his legs, the epidural implant adds electrical signals to improve the end result. The device is wired to a small impulse generator with its own power supply, implanted under the skin of Marc's abdomen.
Marc, who has been using the implant for two years now, said he feels a tingling sensation when the device is turned on, but it doesn't bother him.
"I turn on the stimulation in the morning and I turn off in the evening. This allows me to walk better and to stabilize. Right now, I'm not even afraid of the stairs anymore. Every Sunday, I go to the lake, and I walk around 6km [four miles]. It's incredible," he said.
The implant still has to be tested in a full clinical trial, but the team hopes it can be used to treat mobility issues in those with Parkinson's disease.
"This is only one participant and we don't know whether all the individuals with Parkinson's disease will respond to the therapy," said Prof Grégoire Courtine, one of the medical team members. He added that at least five years of development and testing are required for it to move beyond the proof-of-concept stage.
The device will now be tried in six more Parkinson's patients, using funding from the Michael J Fox Foundation.
The team is also developing a brain-machine interface to overcome paralysis, something Elon Musk's Neuralink is also trying to achieve.
Masthead: CHUV/Gilles Weber