Medical researchers around the world are working hard to develop new treatments and technology that could one day help those suffering from paraplegia to walk again. In a new study called STIMO (STImulation Movement Overground) three paraplegics who sustained cervical spinal cord injuries many years ago can walk again using crutches or a walker. The recovery of the ability to walk with aids is thanks to a rehab protocol that uses targeted electrical stimulation of the lumbar spinal cord and weight assisted therapy.
All the people in the study were able to recover voluntary control of leg muscles that had been paralyzed for many years. Similar studies have been conducted in other countries, but in the STIMO study the scientists found that neurological function was shown to persist beyond training sessions even with the electrical stimulation turned off. This study is led by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) in Switzerland.
One of the scientists on the project says that years of animal study allowed them to create a stimulation system that mimics how the brain naturally activates the spinal cord. Within one week of starting the study, all the participants could walk using body weight support. Researcher Grégoire Courtine says that the exact timing and location of the electrical stimulation was crucial to being able to produce the intended movement.
That timing and location is also what triggers the growth of new nerve connections according to the scientists. In the STIMO study, the team was able to utilize an “unprecedented level of precision” in stimulating the spinal cords. Researchers say the biggest challenge for the participants was to learn coordination of the intention to walk in their brain with the targeted electrical stimulation.
That coordination took only a week for the participants to learn. The team’s next steps are to use their study findings to turn the tech into a treatment that is available at hospitals and clinics around the globe. The scientists also want to see how the treatment fares in new injuries when the possibility to overcome the injury is higher.