© Roger H. Goun
© Roger H. Goun

Neuroprosthetics could make paralysed patients walk again

Professor Gregoire Courtine of l’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, believes paralysed patients will be able to walk again.

His team of researchers has developed so-called ‘personalised neuroprosthetics’ that have led immobile rats, and more recently monkeys, to overcome paralysis.

50,000 people worldwide lose the ability to move their legs due to spinal cord traumas, and Courtine is aware of what his team’s results could mean for such patients.

His research is based on the idea that the spinal cord contains the neuronal network to allow walking, despite being controlled by the brain. When its ties to the brain are severed, the cord alone should be able to generate movement.

In order to stimulate the spinal cord to move, Courtine and his team developed implants to deliver drugs and electrical stimuli to the injured areas, allowing involuntary movement.

Therefore, work continued on a prosthetic that could safely support the animal, allowing it to practice moving intentionally.

Thanks to the apparatus, after relatively short periods of time, the animals that tested this method could walk again, even without the implants.

Courtine said: “This came as a surprise, even to our team. It showed an example of the incredible plasticity of the nervous system, and encouraged us to keep on.”

The extent of this discovery for the treatment of human paralysis is still unknown – but there is no doubt that it bodes well for future patients.

Funded by the ERC, a flagship component of Horizon 2020, Courtine employs a multi-disciplinary team of young researchers, from physiotherapists to neuroscientists, neurosurgeons and engineers.

His forward-thinking, highly qualified team is now at the cusp of a great medical breakthrough.