Once par­a­lyzed, 3 men take steps again with spinal im­plant

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Nation/world - BY BENE­DICT CAREY

David Mzee broke his neck in 2010. He was a col­lege stu­dent in Zurich at the time, an ath­lete who en­joyed risk and con­tact, and he flipped off a tram­po­line and onto a foam pad.

“The foam pad, it didn’t do its job,” he said.

Mzee, now 33, is one of three men who lost the use of their legs years ago af­ter severe spinal in­juries but who now are able to walk with­out any sup­ports, if briefly and awk­wardly, with the help of a pace­maker-like im­plant, sci­en­tists re­ported on Wed­nes­day.

The break­through is the lat­est achieve­ment in the sci­en­tific ef­fort to un­der­stand and treat such lifechang­ing in­juries. Sev­eral re­cent stud­ies have re­stored mo­tion to par­a­lyzed or par­tially par­a­lyzed pa­tients by ap­ply­ing con­tin­u­ous elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion to the spinal cord.

The new re­port, de­scribed in the jour­nal Na­ture, is the first de­mon­stra­tion of so-called pat­terned stim­u­la­tion: An im­plant sends bursts of tar­geted stim­u­la­tion to the mus­cles that in­tend to move. In ef­fect, the stim­u­la­tion oc­curs on an as­needed ba­sis, roughly mim­ick­ing the body’s own sig­nal­ing mech­a­nism.

The treat­ment is still ex­per­i­men­tal, and its ef­fec­tive­ness for oth­ers with com­plete or par­tial paral­y­sis is yet to be worked out. The three men had some sen­sa­tion in their legs be­fore the trial be­gan, and they needed months of in­ten­sive train­ing to achieve their first awk­ward steps. They still rely on wheel­chairs; two can walk out in the com­mu­nity, us­ing walk­ers.

Each of them has learned to move pre­vi­ously limp mus­cles with­out help from the im­plant – an in­di­ca­tion that the elec­tri­cal stim­u­la­tion prompted nerves to re­grow.

“At first ev­ery­thing was new and, of course, ex­cit­ing, but it took so much work to see any dif­fer­ence,” said Mzee. “I would go home af­ter re­hab, eat, then go straight to bed. Then it got eas­ier to get the move­ment I wanted, and the big­gest step for me was when I could move hands free, for the first time, on the tread­mill. I wasn’t able to do that for so many years; it was a re­ally cool feel­ing.”

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