Spinal cord research scientists funded by the Wings for Life World Run have made a breakthrough in their treatment of spinal cord injury, restoring three study participants’ ability to control their muscles after several years of paralysis –and giving hope to millions of people across the globe living with spinal cord injury.

Professors Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch have been working on a clinical study called STIMO (Stimulation Movement Overground), which combines two treatments: precise electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and intensive robot-assisted movement training. It establishes a new therapeutic framework to improve recovery from spinal cord injury.

“We implant an array of electrodes over the spinal cord, which allows us to target individual muscle groups in the legs,” said Bloch, who surgically placed the implants in the patients.

“Selected configurations of electrodes activate specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking,” continued Bloch.

The patients then have to learn how to coordinate their brains’ intention to walk with the targeted electrical stimulation. “When all the patients could walk using body-weight support within one week, I knew immediately that we were on the right path,” said Bloch.

Thanks to the targeted neurotechnology, the three participants could actively train natural overground walking capabilities in the rehabilitation lab for long periods of time, rather than doing passive training, like exoskeleton-assisted stepping.

Just five months after having an electronic stimulator surgically implanted over the dura (the coating that protects the spinal cord), all three patients’ ability to move and control their muscles had improved.

The patients can operate the stimulator with a personalised voice-controlled watch, switching the stimulation on and off to suit their needs. All three patients can move their paralyzed muscles even when the stimulator is turned off, too.

Study participant Gert-Jan Oskam was told after a traffic accident in 2011 he’d never be able to walk again. “But now I can walk short distances with the help of electrical stimulation and crutches. I should be able to have a BBQ standing on my own in the near future,” said Oskam.

Sebastian Tobler had a spinal cord injury so severe that doctors had no walking-rehabilitation programme to offer. “Now the electrical stimulation gives me the opportunity to train. It gets my blood flowing, and – more excitingly – gets me out in the forest. It’s good for the mind. It’s good for the body,” said Tobler.

After seven years living with an incomplete spinal cord injury, David Mzee took his first shaky but voluntary steps: “It’s an amazing feeling – let’s see how far we can go with this technology,” said Mzee.

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