With the new device, 63-year-old Marc Gauthier says he frequently walks up to 3.7 miles without falling
A man in France was the first patient to receive a spinal implant created to treat advanced Parkinson’s disease — and has been walking without problems since.
As a result, he dealt with severe mobility problems, including balance and severe gait impairments.
“I practically could not walk anymore without falling frequently, several times a day,” he told The Guardian. “In some situations, such as entering a lift, I’d trample on the spot, as though I was frozen there, you might say.”
Since receiving the implant, which intends to restore normal signaling from the spine to the leg muscles, Gauthier has been able to walk without falling. He told the outlet that the experience was “a rebirth.”
“Right now, I’m not even afraid of the stairs anymore,” he said. “Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometers [about 3.7 miles]. It’s incredible.”
According to the Swiss team behind the implant, who published a study in Nature Medicine, they began by creating an anatomical map of Gauthier’s spinal cord that marked the specific locations involved in signaling his legs to move.
The researchers then implanted a system of electrodes at these locations, which allowed stimulation to be delivered to Gauthier's spinal neurons. He wears a sensor on each of his legs and when he begins walking, the implant turns on automatically, delivering stimulation to the spine.
The goal of the implant is to correct abnormal signals sent from the brain — which travel down the spine — to the patient’s legs to restore normal movement.
According to the study's findings, the device improved Gauthier’s walking and mobility impairments, and the longtime Parkinson’s patient also reported significant improvements in his quality of life.
Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon and professor at the CHUV Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, who co-led the study, said that this targeted stimulation has previously been used on paraplegic patients.
“It is impressive to see how by electrically stimulating the spinal cord in a targeted manner, in the same way as we have done with paraplegic patients, we can correct walking disorders caused by Parkinson’s disease,” Bloch told The Guardian.
“At no point is [the patient] controlled by the machine,” Eduardo Martin Moraud, a professor of neural engineering at the Swiss university, said.
Rather, “it’s just enhancing his capacity to walk,” Moraud added.
Though effective for Gauthier, the implant has yet to be tested in a full clinical trial, which the study said is necessary to demonstrate its clinical efficacy.
The Swiss researchers have already enrolled six more patients to assess whether the apparent benefits can be replicated, per The Guardian.
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Professor Karunesh Ganguly, a neurologist at the University of California San Francisco who “specializes in neurological rehabilitation, particularly for patients with gait or walking disorders” was not involved in the study — but said that its implications are “exciting.”
“This study describes a new approach for modulating the spinal cord in order to improve gait in Parkinson’s disease [and the] treatment can also potentially address freezing of gait, which is currently hard to treat,” Ganguly told The Guardian.
“It will be exciting to see how this generalizes to a larger population of patients,” he added.
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