Left: Two men wearing coats and hats who are standing side-by-side on a sidewalk walk towards the camera with the assistance of walkers. Right: artist’s rendering of an oval-shaped medical implant dotted with electrodes that has wires protruding from one end.
Two men wearing coats and hats who are standing side-by-side on a sidewalk walk towards the camera with the assistance of walkers.

Within Hours, Surgical Implant Lets Paralyzed Patients Walk

Multiple clinical trial participants who have severe spinal injuries were able to stand, walk, and perform specific activities after just one day of using an implant surgically embedded in their spines.

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Dan Robitzski

Dan is a Staff Writer and Editor at The Scientist. He typically works on the news desk and joined the team in 2021. He has a background in neuroscience and earned his master's in science journalism at New York University.

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Feb 8, 2022

ABOVE: Michel Rocatti (left) and another clinical trial participant walk down the street in Lausanne with the aid of their implants; artist’s rendering of the implant. NEURORESTORE / JIMMY RAVIER

When Michel Rocatti completely severed his spinal cord in a 2017 motorcycle accident, he permanently lost all sensation in and control over his legs. For years, Rocatti was unable to walk—until an experimental implant was surgically embedded into his spine, re-completing the broken biological circuit between his spinal cord and the severed nerves, The Guardian reports.

NEURORESTORE / JIMMY RAVIER





When prompted, the device sends activity-specific pulses of electricity to various nerves that were cut off from the central nervous system, allowing the Rocatti and other paralyzed people to send the appropriate stimulation and instructions to their legs. Rocatti and the other two participants in an ongoing clinical trial were able to stand, walk, use bicycle pedals, and kick their legs in a swimming pool within hours of having the flexible, multi-electrode device embedded into their spines, according to research published Monday (February 7) in Nature Medicine. The device and software, developed by researchers at Lausanne University Hospital and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, significantly reduce the time between surgical implantation and a patient taking their first steps compared to other treatments or robotic exoskeletons, which can require extensive training to use.

“That is remarkable to see within 1 day with a severe injury like this,” Mayo Clinic research physical therapist Megan Gill, who didn’t work on the project, tells Science.

After several months of practice, the participants became better acquainted with the system and were able to move with a more fluid, natural gait, according to Reuters. Eventually, they were able to practice using it in areas outside of the lab, controlling the implant themselves using a tablet.

See “Brain-Controlled Exoskeleton Enables Paralyzed Patient to Walk

Rocatti tells The Guardian that using the electrode is now “a part of my daily life.”

“I stand up, walk where I want to, I can walk the stairs—it’s almost a normal life,” he tells the BBC.

The BBC reports that nine patients have received the implant and regained the ability to walk so far—the Nature Medicine article highlights three—but that the system is too complicated for widespread everyday use. Instead, the system serves as part of a physical rehabilitation regiment.

NEURORESTORE / EPFL



The researchers say that their device is not a cure for spinal injury because the damaged and severed nerves don't actually heal. However, they tell Reuters that they hope to launch a clinical trial for dozens more patients within the next year so that they can further refine and improve the technology.

See "Cell Transplant Trial for Spinal Injury Is Safe"

Their progress so far “is a critical step to improve people’s quality of life,” lead developer and EPFL neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine tells the BBC. “We are going to empower people. We are going to give them the ability to stand, to take some steps. It is not enough, but it is a significant improvement.”