Electrical stimulation that uses a newly designed implant to repair and restore injured nerves may have the potential to transform the lives of people living with spinal cord injuries.
A clinical trial conducted by NeuroRestore, a research and treatment center in Lausanne, Switzerland, was recently reported in the respected scientific journal, Nature Medicine. The study had highly promising results–even allowing some patients with complete spinal cord injuries to walk again.
Unlike previous studies that were required to use FDA-approved stimulators designed for pain, this study tested a device specific to the spinal cord, which was longer and wider in order to cover more spinal cord nerve roots and provide more stimulation options. The device was implanted in three young men with paraplegia below the level of their injury. The device generated electric signals designed to replace missing signals from the brain which stimulated stepping and climbing stairs.
Study participants worked with scientists to determine optimal stimulation settings. Michel Roccati said, “We found a setting that allowed me to stand up and see my body standing in the mirror in front of me. It was very emotional moment.”
Also on the first day, Roccati was able to take steps with stimulation using a harness. And then, after intense practice (four to five sessions a week for one to three hours), he was able to walk with the help of a walker. All participants also reported improvement in strength without the stimulator, which suggested some brain signals may have been restored.
The next phase of research will expand the trials to determine who will benefit from stimulation and how much improvement can be made for injuries. While it will take time for the technology to reach the public, the results are promising. Roccati says he no longer needs to ask friends to help him up and down stairs and feels more energetic. “Now, after the implant, I am another type of person.”