In brief: Paralyzed patients are learning to walk again with a treatment called "epidural stimulation." An implant placed below a spinal cord injury is helping the brain bypass the damage. Patients have not seen full recovery, but have been able to walk with support. The technology looks promising for spinal injury sufferers.
Paralyzing spinal cord injuries could be repaired if current breakthroughs in technology are advanced. Two studies — one published in Nature Medicine and another in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) — show that electrical stimulation just below the injury site has helped some patients regain their ability to walk.
The treatment is called epidural stimulation. It was initially intended to help patients suffering from chronic pain, but experiments performed on paralyzed patients have shown that the method can be used to send “lost signals” from the brain to the leg muscles.
Sixteen electrodes are connected just below the spinal injury to the nerves that control sensorimotor signals to the legs. A battery unit implanted inside the abdomen powers the stimulator and allows it to be controlled wirelessly. The device gives the patient the ability to control his or her movements again voluntarily.
Dr. Claudia Angeli, the lead researcher in the NEJM study, told Business Insider, “It was really amazing. You get to see the little small increments on a daily basis or a weekly basis, and then when it all comes together that is a very emotional time for the participants, and for the team as well in the sense that, okay, we got it, we're able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.”
It is not as simple as it sounds though. The stimulator is not repairing the damage, but instead helps the brain bypass the injury. Furthermore, the patients who have seen success underwent rigorous physical therapy. So it is not a “quick fix” by any stretch of the imagination.
It is also not guaranteed to work 100 percent of the time nor return complete mobility. Patients were able to walk but still needed support. Two recipients of the treatment were unable to regain their ability to walk but did see improvements in remaining upright and moving their legs.
The technology is providing hope for those who have been told they will never walk again, but researchers have a long way to go yet.
“We know the spinal cord can now do this thing, it can regain the ability to walk,” said Angeli. “That is huge. We need to be able to reproduce this in a larger number of individuals with different injuries and different time since injuries.” So clearly, research is ongoing.