Next-generation spinal implants help people with severe paralysis walk, cycle, and swim
Three men paralyzed in motorcycle accidents have become the first success stories for a new spinal stimulation device that could enable faster and easier recoveries than its predecessors. The men, who had no sensation or control over their legs, were able to take supported steps within 1 day of turning on the electrical stimulation, and could stroll outside with a walker after a few months, researchers report today. The nerve-stimulating device doesn’t cure spinal cord injury, and it likely won’t eliminate wheelchair use, but it raises hopes that the assistive technology is practical enough for widespread use.
When trauma severely damages the bundle of nerves that make up a person’s spinal cord, the brain’s electrical signals no longer reach the body’s muscles, resulting in paralysis. But epidural stimulation devices, thin sheets of electrodes implanted beneath the vertebra of the lower spine, can re-create those commands beyond the injury site and trigger leg movements. When such stimulation is turned on, even some patients with “complete” paraplegia—no movement or sensation in the lower body—have been able to walk after extensive training and with assistance from supportive devices or a therapist.