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Reversing paralysis with neuro technology

Newly published neuroscience studies offer encouragement towards reversing paralysis through technology and physical rehabilitation.

In recent months different teams of neuroscientists have published encouraging studies on reversing paralysis through the electrical stimulation of the spinal cord in combination with an intensive programme of physical rehabilitation.

Spinal cord injury disrupts communications between the brain and the spinal cord, leading to the devastating loss of neurological functions below the level of injury, which can include varying degrees of paralysis.

The emerging clinical evidence indicates that the targeted electrical stimulation of nerve cells within the spinal cord, via a small implant, strengthens the neural networks between the brain and the spinal cord below the injury site and may help to repair the spinal cord. In paralysed patients, the improved neural connections make the spinal cord more receptive to signals from the brain, allowing patients to recover some voluntary control of their muscles below the level of injury and restoring some ability to stand and walk with assistance.

The latest published study demonstrates the ongoing development of this form of rehabilitative treatment. A team of Swiss neuro-engineers at EPFL, led by Professor Courtine, designed an implant which is controlled by the patient via a watch and which delivers targeted synchronised impulses to the relevant neurons in order to produce the intended muscle movement. An intensive physiotherapy programme runs alongside the stimulation treatment helping the patient to co ordinate the voluntary movement of the muscles and regain an ability to walk.

The Swiss rehabilitative treatment was trialed on a small group of three patients, to include David M’zee, all of whom had been paralysed for a number of years and whose muscles and nerves below the level of injury had undergone varying degrees of degeneration following on from paralysis. Professor Courtine reports that the treatment has led to spinal cord repair with the regrowth of nerve fibres, reconnecting the brain to the spinal cord, and that all three patients recovered some degree of walking ability, with assistance, within a very short time.

M’zee, a highly motivated 30 year old patient whose left leg was completely paralysed in 2010, said that the Swiss rehabilitative treatment had allowed him to “try the impossible” and he is now able to walk for more than half a mile with stimulation, whilst using a walker or crutches for support, and up to eight paces with the implant switched off. His walking distances reduce outside of the lab environment and he cannot use the implant continuously due to discomfort. It appears that Mzee’s determination to improve his function and his young age are important factors in the remarkable progress that he has made.

Further research into this form of treatment is needed and any decision as to whether or not it should be made available for widespread use appears to be a number of years away. In the meantime, neuro-scientists will focus their research on a number of key areas, to include considering whether or not the noted improvements in voluntary muscle control are permanent and whether or not the treatment will prove to be more effective in newly injured patients whose neuro- muscular systems have yet to undergo significant degeneration.

The positive clinical findings offer hope to paralysed patients that they may walk again and improvements to their function and the quality and length of their lives may result from this form of treatment. Other forms of rehabilitation treatment aimed at repairing the spinal cord have been trialed in the past but have yet to be used in the wider sphere, such as transplanting stem cells to the injury site to try and regenerate the neural network.

It remains to be seen whether or not the electrical stimulation of the cord will form part of the future battery of treatments routinely employed to improve the function of paralysed patients. In this scenario, insurers may be asked to meet the costs of this form of treatment but, in return, any improvement in function may reduce of the value of other heads of loss, such as the expensive care regime. The development of this form of treatment will therefore be of interest to the paralysed and the catastrophic claims industry alike, going forward.

If you have any questions or would like to know more about our update, please contact Dave Cottam or Christina McDonald (Associate and author of this update) on 0151 242 6928, or 

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