Thanks to groundbreaking technology developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) in collaboration with the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), three paraplegics have now been able to walk, swim, and cycle again, after years of inactivity cased by their illness. The new technology consists of spinal cord implants controlled by artificial intelligence software that employs electrical stimulation to reactivate spinal neurons which control trunk and leg muscles.
“Our stimulation algorithms are still based on imitating nature,” said study senior author Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at EPFL and CHUV. “And our new, soft implanted leads are designed to be placed underneath the vertebrae, directly on the spinal cord. They can modulate the neurons regulating specific muscle groups. By controlling these implants, we can activate the spinal cord like the brain would do naturally to have the patient stand, walk, swim or ride a bike, for example.”
The researchers implanted the leads into the patients’ spinal cords, and inserted a pacemaker into their stomach, which they connected to a tablet able to forward a variety of signals to the pacemaker, which in turn activated spinal cord neurons responsible for specific types of movements.
Until now, three paraplegics with complete sensorimotor paralysis have successfully tested the system as part of an ongoing clinical trial. Within a single day, the implants controlled by the stimulation programs enabled the participants to stand, walk, cycle, swim, and control their trunk movements.
“That’s thanks to the specific stimulation programs we wrote for each type of activity,” explained Professor Courtaine. “Patients can select the desired activity on the tablet, and the corresponding protocols are relayed to the pacemaker in the abdomen.”
While the progress these patients achieved in a single day is amazing, the gains visible in a few months of using the new device are even more astonishing. After following a training regimen based on the stimulation programs, the three paraplegics were able to regain muscle mass, move around more independently, and participate in social activities such as having a drink while standing at a bar.
“This study further demonstrates the benefits of our approach,” said Professor Courtine. “We’re now working with ONWARD Medical, which recently listed on Euronext, to turn our discoveries into genuine treatments that can improve the lives of thousands of people around the world.”
The new technology and its results are described in an article published in the journal Nature Medicine.