Michel Roccati is now able to stand and walk.
They couldn't move their legs, not even feel them. Several paraplegic patients are now able to walk again thanks to an implant that electrically stimulates their spinal cord, a breakthrough that could become widespread within a few years.
This technology has enabled three paraplegics to stand again, walk, cycle and swim again, summarizes a study published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.
These three patients, all men, were not only incapable of any movement in their legs, but they no longer had any sensation there, following accidents that had damaged their marrow spine.
The spinal cord, contained by the vertebral column, extends the brain and controls many movements. These can therefore be irretrievably lost if contact with the brain is damaged.
But, for these three patients, it was possible to change the situation. In Lausanne, a team led by the Swiss surgeon Jocelyne Bloch and the French neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine implanted them with about fifteen electrodes which make it possible to electrically stimulate several areas of their spinal cord.
This is not a first, but rather the culmination of ten years of work of this type with, finally, the prospect of making it a therapy that would change the lives of many paralytics.
The idea of sending an electric current to regain lost motion dates back decades and was first put into practice in 2011. A paraplegic was then able to to stand up again.
In 2018, several teams, including already that of Ms. Bloch and Mr. Courtine, had succeeded in getting patients to walk again using such technology.
But we were still far from being able to envisage a concrete application. The patients concerned had needed several weeks to redo a few steps and their progress remained limited, with little benefit to their daily life.
This time, the operated patients were able to take their first steps almost immediately even though, performed on a treadmill in the laboratory, they had nothing to do with normal walking.
You should not imagine an immediate miracle, [but] it allows you to practice your activities right away, explained Mr. Courtine during a press conference.
After five months of rehabilitation, the progress was considerable: for example, one of the patients was able to walk almost a kilometer without interruption.
To achieve such advances, the researchers improved the technology used compared to previous experiments.
These were based on pre-existing electrical stimulation tools. However, these devices were designed for a different purpose: to reduce pain and not to stimulate movement, a much more complex objective, especially since each human being has a spinal cord with very variable characteristics.
This time, the electrodes are longer and larger than those used before, which allows access to more muscles, detailed Jocelyne Bloch.
Another important advance, thanks to software using artificial intelligence, the electrical impulses are much more precise: they correspond better to each movement, instead of consisting of an indiscriminate current flow.
When will these advances be able to benefit the greatest number? Hopefully within a few years, says Ms. Bloch.
The technology is to undergo much larger clinical trials under the aegis of a young Dutch company, Onward. This company aims to make it easily usable using a smartphone, for example to control its triggering.
Because this is one of the limits to take into account: as soon as it is turned off, electrical stimulation has almost no lasting effect. And it is inconceivable to maintain it permanently, which would exhaust the patient's organism.
But finding a little movement every day is already a lot, as evidenced by one of the patients, Michel Roccati, in whom these electrodes were implanted in 2020, three years after a serious motorcycle accident.
I' use every day for a few hours: at work, at home, for a lot of things, he said. Now it's part of my daily life.