Unbelievable moment paralysed man walks for first time in five years

Image Jeff Marquis

Image Jeff Marquis

Neurosurgeon Dr Kendall Lee, who co-led the team from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said: "After implant and turning on the stimulation the patient was able to regain voluntary control of the movement of his legs".

It's not clear why the other two Louisville, Kentucky participants weren't able to take independent steps.

To achieve such recovery, the researchers first implanted an electrode into Chinnock's epidural space, the covering of the spinal cord, below his injury.

Spinal injuries disrupt nerve pathways that ordinarily allow the brain to signal the legs to move.

Five years after being paralysed, a man in the United States has learned to walk again aided by an electrical implant, in a potential breakthrough for spinal injury sufferers.

These new studies serve as an exciting proof of concept and mark the first time people with spinal cord injuries recovered that functional walking. Still, those patients were able to stand, move a leg, or step on a treadmill.

"We were able to get him to stand independently and be able to take his own steps", Lee said.

"Now I think the real challenge starts, and that's understanding how this happened, why it happened, and which patients will respond, says Kristin Zhao, Ph.D., co-principal investigator and director of Mayo Clinic's Assistive and Restorative Technology Laboratory".

The device was then placed below the site of the original injury in a region that covers areas responsible for sending sensorimotor signals to the patients' legs. The electrode connects to a pulse generator device under the skin of his abdomen and communicates wirelessly with an external controller. Researchers have tried other technologies, such as encasing patients in robotic-like exoskeletons or implanting muscle stimulators, to help move paralyzed limbs.

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He can not yet walk independently outside the lab, but does perform regular leg exercises at home while standing or sitting, Zhao said.

In tests the 29-year-old patient was able to stand up and walk 111 yards (102 metres) - the length of an American football field - while pushing a front-wheeled walker.

"There were three types of training sessions: stepping on a treadmill, over-ground standing, and over-ground walking, with each type of session performed daily", the team wrote in their report, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. However, when stimulation was off, the man remained paralyzed. To get around that, some researchers are looking at brain implants that bypass the spinal cord to relay information. "I mean, that's kind of a goal, but the main goal is to not need anything".

For safety reasons, the patient now only uses the device under supervision, but the implications of the study - that paralysis may not be permanent after severe spinal injury - could be massive.

The treatment involves an implant that delivers electrical stimulation directly to the the spinal cord - along with a whole lot of training where researchers help patients go through the motions of standing and walking again.

Susan Harkema, a professor of neurological surgery who was part of that research, described the outcome as "phenomenal" in an interview with CNN.

"Recovery can happen if you have the right circumstances", she wrote, adding that, with her new procedure, the spinal cord "relearns to do things, not as well as it did before, but it can function". Eventually, she hopes, it will be possible to do this without an implanted stimulator. Thanks to the devices, all 14 had been in a do to transfer and had better bowel and bladder feature, she said.

"This could also silent swap our focused on of us with paralysis", Harkema said.

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