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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”