A paralysed man with a severed spinal cord has been able to walk again, thanks to an implant developed by a team of Swiss researchers.
It is the first time someone who has had a complete cut to their spinal cord has been able to walk freely, reports BBC.
The same technology has improved the health of another paralysed patient to the extent that he has been able to become a father.
The research has been published in the journal Nature Medicine.
Michel Roccati was paralysed after a motorbike accident five years ago. His spinal cord was completely severed – and he has no feeling at all in his legs.
But he can now walk – because of an electrical implant that has been surgically attached to his spine.
Someone this injured has never been able to walk like this before.
The researchers stress that it isn’t a cure for spinal injury and that the technology is still too complicated to be used in everyday life, but hail it nonetheless as a major step to improving quality of life.
I met Michel at the lab where the implant was created. He told me that the technology “is a gift to me”.
“I stand up, walk where I want to, I can walk the stairs – it’s almost a normal life.”
It was not the technology alone that drove Michel’s recovery. The young Italian has a steely resolve. He told me that from the moment of his accident, he was determined to make as much progress as he could.
“I used to box, run and do fitness training in the gym. But after the accident, I could not do the things that I loved to do, but I did not let my mood go down. I never stopped my rehabilitation. I wanted to solve this problem.”
The speed of Michel’s recovery amazed the neurosurgeon who inserted the implant and expertly attached electrodes to individual nerve fibres, Prof Jocelyne Bloch from the Laboratoire de Neurothérapies et Neuromodulation – LNTM.
“I was extremely surprised,” she told me. “Michel is absolutely incredible. He should be able to use this technology to progress and be better and better.”
The research has been backed by Dr Ram Hariharan, a consultant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield who is independent of the research team and also speaks for the Spinal Injuries Association.
“They have done something that has not been done before.
“I have not heard of any study where they have put in an implant [into a patient with a complete spinal cord cut] and demonstrated muscle movements and improving balance, enough to stand and walk.”
But he added more clinical trials needed to be carried out before he could be convinced that it was an effective treatment.
“We need more numbers [of patients] to show that it is first safe and that it significantly enhances their lives. Only then can it be taken forward.”
Nerves in the spinal cord send signals from the brain to the legs. Some people are paralysed when the nerves are damaged through injury.
In Michel’s case there’s no signal at all to his legs because the spinal cord is completely severed. But the implant sends signals directly to his legs enabling him to walk, but only when the implant is on.