A team of doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota recently announced that a 26-year-old-man who had become paralysed from the waist down in a snowmobile accident five years ago has regained the ability to walk using the power of his own mind.
Well, not just his own mind – the breakthrough (which was previously thought impossible) has been achieved by implanting a small electronic device in the middle of the man’s back to stimulate the nerves which have been permanently disconnected from the brain.
A detailed account of the procedure and the outcomes thereof have been published on Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.
“What this is teaching us is that those networks of neurons below a spinal cord injury can still function after paralysis,” said Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic and lead author on the study.
Following the first several weeks of switching on the wirelessly operated device, the man was already capable of walking on a treadmill while partially suspended on a harness and assisted by a group of medical professionals.
The researchers did not limit their expectations and continued to safely advance the man’s performance as he continued to gain function.
Since the implant did not restore sensation in his legs, adjusting balance – something most of us do without even thinking – was a significant hurdle to overcome, which was achieved by placing mirrors around the treadmill to allow the man to see the position of his legs.
After several more sessions of rehab and physiotherapy, the man finally took his first steps unassisted.
“Now I think the real challenge starts, and that’s understanding how this happened, why it happened, and which patients will respond,” said co-author on the study Dr Kristin Zhao, Director of the May Clinic’s Assistive and Restorative Technology Laboratory.
While the man in question still uses a wheelchair to perform daily activities, the implications of this study – which the researchers think is the first to result in a paralysed subject walking – could be massive.
“Our results, combined with prior evidence, emphasise the need to reassess our current understandings of spinal cord injury in order to realise the potential of emerging technologies for functional recovery once thought to be permanently lost,” explained Lee.