Biomedical implant sparks spinal rehab

In a remarkable, but limited study, three patients who were paralysed for years and using wheelchairs have regained significant capacity to walk and use their legs.  The rehabilitation was achieved by a wireless electrical stimulation implant developed by Dr Grégoire Courtine and a team at EPFL university in Switzerland who focus on neuroprosthetic systems. 

Successively more complex research on rodents, primates and now human subjects has yielded this breakthrough with epidural electrical stimulation (EES) of the spinal cord.  The technique has restored walking in animals with spinal cord injury but was previously much less effective in humans. The three human patients received neurorehabilitation in a spring-assisted harness while stepping on a treadmill belt, receiving EES treatment, and supporting their body weight through their arms and hands-on side rails. 

Over a period of time, the patients’ spinal cords seem to have “re-learned” how to transmit nerve signals and activate muscles.  However, the research team believes that distinct differences between human neural systems and simpler animals have prevented replicating learning from animal trials to inform human biomedical research.  The researchers found that low amplitude but high-frequency EES bursts may be an improved stimulation strategy for humans. 

Their research work continues.


This story is featured in the 9 November 2018 edition of The Warren Centre’s Prototype newsletter. Sign up for the Prototype here.

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