First tests of spinal cord treatment help paralyzed people walk

Published: Feb. 8, 2022 at 8:59 AM CST
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(CNN) - A new medical device appears to be able to help paralyzed people walk again.

The results are still early, but they’re so remarkable, it could be a game changer.

No one ever thought Michael Roccati would be able to take a step again. In 2017, he was paralyzed after a motorcycle accident.

“I tried to move my legs. I try to change my position. This was impossible to do - nothing,” he said. “I fixed in my mind that it was just a situation, so I put on my mind, my behavior to try and solve this problem. And I never stopped.”

Now he can walk about a mile without assistance thanks to a device that sends electrical impulses to his spine. He can control it through his computer.

Scientists have been researching electrical stimulation as a treatment for paralysis for three decades. In 2014, patients at the University of Louisville used similar technology.

They were able to wiggle their toes, move their knees and even stand up. With months of assistance in rehab, some of them even began walking.

The newest stimulator, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, can reach more of the spinal cord and allow people to regain movement on the same day that they received the implant.

“This technology is so precise that immediately after the surgery, the patient can walk and stand,” said surgeon Jocelyne Bloch.

Three patients, men between the ages of 29 and 41 including Roccati, were able to walk within a week.

Their case is detailed in a study published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.

With hours and hours of rehabilitation for five months, the patients were walking, riding bikes and even boxing.

They plan to test it out on 50 to 100 more patients to make sure it’s safe and see if it works better in some people than in others.

They hope that if the device performs well in these tests, that it will be widely used in the next three to four years.

But these initial steps are still monumental.

“Walking is super important; just (standing) up can solve a lot of kind of problems in their normal life,” Roccati said. “Just to do a simple shower with the crutches, I can stand up and do a shower. With the walker, I am free. I can walk wherever I want in this moment.”

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