Paralysis plagues the lives of countless people today, inhibiting a lot of functionality in daily life. Recently, it came to light that there may be a solution. A breakthrough invention has enabled three paralyzed individuals to walk again. This breakthrough could be life-changing not only for these three individuals, but for many more people in the future.
Paralysis and the spinal cord
Scientists had already established that the spinal cord is the conduit through which our brains send instructions to our limbs via electrical signals. Since this discovery, people have pondered whether it would be possible to bypass damage induced by accidents.
Some progress had already been made; multiple labs have been successful in enabling rats with severed spinal cords to walk again.
Can paralysis be cured?
Recent progress has been made in performing the same miracle for paralyzed human beings. Dr. Jocelyne Bloch, at Lausanne University Hospital, inserted implants into three paralyzed patients in order to re-activate leg muscles. Using body weight support, each patient was able to walk within one week.
The technique was not as simple as providing a path to transfer electrical signals from the brain to the limbs. The stimulation needed to be incredibly precise. Bloch had mapped all areas of the spinal cord that contribute to a person’s ability to walk, and designed a sequence of electrical pulses that would initiate them. Afterwards, she utilized the messages coming from the brain to the undamaged area of the spinal cord, to induce necessary signals within the injured body parts. This induction encouraged connections to build in order to replace any connections that were lost due to the person’s injury.
How effective is this breakthrough?
The work has since been published in the journal Nature. A paper was also published in the journal Nature Neuroscience detailing challenges that arose, but were overcome, during the process.
The work is not yet perfect. So far, none of the participants have been able to walk unaided for more than a few meters. All three patients also had residual movement before the operation took place. Regardless, this is still progress that will certainly pave the way for even more life-changing breakthroughs in the future.