Three Paralyzed Men Can Walk Again After Receiving Spinal Implant

Incredible — growth of damaged nerves was unforeseen benefit

Three paralyzed men, all told by doctors they would never walk again, can now get up out of their wheelchairs, thanks to the help of Swiss doctors and an electrical device.

The device — implanted around the injured men’s spines — not only enhanced the signals between the brains and legs of the patients, it also prompted the regrowth of damaged nerves.

“Nerve fibers are growing again. They are reconnecting the brain to the spinal cord,” said Dr. Gregoire Courtine, professor of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the leader of the trial, to CBS News.

The growth of damaged nerves was an unforeseen benefit — one researchers hope will be able to grant patients independent mobility in the course of time.

Created by a team at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the device was part of the work done in a clinical trial, as published in the journal Nature.

“This little device that is an impulse generator is giving impulses to the electrode that is located on the spinal cord,” said Lausanne neurosurgeon Dr. Jocelyne Bloch in an interview with CBS News.

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The impulse generator is controlled, surprisingly, with the patient’s watch.

An unfortunate result of spinal cord injuries is that nervous system communication can become severely disrupted, resulting in the loss of neurological functions and ultimately, paralysis.

The signal between the brain and the legs can become weakened, preventing movement. The new device enriches these ever-important signals, as the BBC reported.

The first of the three patients involved was 30-year-old David Mzee. He suffered a severe spinal injury that took place seven years earlier in a sporting event; all past rehabilitation attempts were unsuccessful. With the implant, Mzee can now walk over half a mile while using a walker.

“To me it means a lot. I’m surprised at what we have been able to do. I think you have to try and do the impossible to make the possible possible. It’s a lot of fun — it feels really good,” said Mzee.

Bloch, who surgically inserted the implant at Lausanne University Hospital, was amazed when she saw the improvement.

When the electric device is switched off, Mzee can still walk up to eight paces, the first-ever recording of this in a chronic spinal cord injury. Doctors have confidence that paralysis is conquerable.

Courtine spoke of David Mzee’s inspiring positive spirit along with his sense of humor.

Doctors have confidence that paralysis is conquerable.

“I came with my daughter, Charlotte, who was one month old at the time. As we approached David, he looked her in the eye and said, ‘I will walk before you.’ After finally walking, David once again jokingly addressed Charlotte, “I have beaten you,” as the BBC reported.

“I’m really excited about this,” Johns Hopkins University rehabilitation expert Dr. Cristina Sadowsky, who wasn’t involved in the new research, told CBS News. It tapped into “residual connections that are not being used” after a spinal cord injury, the outlet noted.

Sadowsky also cautioned that “not everybody who has a similar injury will respond the same.”

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