After receiving a spinal implant, a patient with Parkinson’s disease was able to walk 6km without experiencing any difficulties.
The initial recipient of a spinal implant for advanced Parkinson’s disease shared feeling like he had been given a new lease on life after the procedure enabled him to walk without falling.
Marc, a resident of Bordeaux, France, and 63 years old, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease over two decades ago. As a result, he experienced significant mobility issues, such as balance impairments and gait freezing. However, since receiving the implant that works to restore proper signaling from the spine to the leg muscles, he has been able to walk with greater ease and regain his independence.
“I was struggling to walk without constantly falling, multiple times a day. There were moments where I would freeze in place, like when entering an elevator,” he explained. “But now, I no longer fear stairs. I even walk 6 kilometres [3.7 miles] every Sunday at the lake. It’s amazing.”
The Swiss team, known for their work in creating brain-machine interfaces to help with paralysis, is hopeful that their technology can provide a new method for treating movement impairment in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. However, the implant still needs to undergo a complete clinical trial.
Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon and professor at CHUV Lausanne University hospital, was amazed by the results of electrically stimulating the spinal cord in a specific manner, which was previously used for paraplegic patients, to improve walking difficulties caused by Parkinson’s disease. She co-led the study.
The gradual decline of neurons that produce dopamine is responsible for Parkinson’s disease. In around 90% of severe cases, this results in challenges with walking, such as balance issues and gait freezing. While traditional treatments like Levodopa can alleviate symptoms, they cannot fully restore normal mobility. The implant aims to address this by specifically targeting the spinal region that controls leg muscle activation during walking.
The initial step involved creating an individualized anatomical chart of Marc’s spinal cord, which pinpointed the specific areas responsible for sending signals to his leg for movement. Subsequently, electrodes were surgically placed at these sites to enable direct stimulation of the spinal cord.
The individual has a motion detector attached to each leg. When they start walking, the device turns on and sends pulses of stimulation to the spinal neurons. The goal is to fix any abnormal signals that are being sent from the brain to the legs, in order to regain regular movement. According to Prof Eduardo Martin Moraud from Lausanne University hospital, the device does not control the individual, but rather enhances their ability to walk.
The research, which was published in Nature Medicine, discovered that the surgically implanted device enhanced Marc’s ability to walk and improved his balance. When Marc’s walking was analyzed, it more closely resembled that of individuals without Parkinson’s disease rather than other patients with the condition. Additionally, Marc noted significant enhancements in his overall quality of life.
The writers stated that a complete clinical trial was necessary to show the effectiveness in a medical setting. They have recruited an additional six participants to determine if the observed advantages can be reproduced. Professor Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at EPFL and co-leader of the study, described the current stage as a proof of concept. He also noted that it will take at least five years of development and testing before it can be implemented.
Neurologist Prof Karunesh Ganguly from the University of California San Francisco, who was not part of the research, commented that this study introduces a novel method for manipulating the spinal cord to enhance gait in individuals with Parkinson’s disease. Additionally, this treatment may have the potential to alleviate gait freezing, which is currently difficult to treat. It will be intriguing to observe how this approach can be applied to a wider group of patients.