Here at Digital Trends, we’ve covered some amazing high-tech wheelchairs and even exosuits that can help people with lower body paralysis to walk again. Adding to (and, in some ways, potentially surpassing) that amazing assistive technology is some astonishing new work coming out of the Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic researchers recently demonstrated how an implanted electrical stimulator was able to help a man paralyzed four years ago in a snowmobile accident to regain the ability to stand — and even walk the length of a football field.
“This report is the first to show a man with complete loss of sensory and motor function of his lower body able — using epidural spinal stimulation and intense physical therapy — to step independently on a treadmill and step over ground with the help of a front-wheeled walker,” Dr. Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon who directs the Mayo Clinic’s Neural Engineering Lab, told Digital Trends. “These findings support the concept that, after severe injury, spinal networks can be modulated and adapt to training with spinal stimulation to regain some control of function.”
While technology is a crucial part of this demonstration, however, this is by no means a story of tech as a magic “fix-all.” In order for the patient, Jered Chinnock, to be able to perform the miraculous feat he had to carry out a strenuous rehab regimen lasting for 43 weeks.
Interestingly, the researchers involved in the study aren’t exactly sure why the spinal stimulation is as effective as it is — although they have working hypotheses.
“The implant is placed below the injury over areas of the spinal cord that communicate sensorimotor signals to the legs,” Dr. Kristin Zhao, a biomedical engineer involved with the research, told us. “Epidural stimulation may enhance spinal network activity so these networks can receive weak, descending signals. Those signals may be crossing the injury and integrating incoming signals from the legs resulting in coordinated, robust motor functions.”
Having demonstrated the potential of spinal neuromodulation, the Mayo Clinic hopes to improve its understanding of spinal cord physiology and how emerging technologies can be used as part of treatment. “We want to better understand how this is happening, what is happening, and who it is most appropriate for,” Zhao continued. “We are also interested in the secondary effects of spinal cord injury on overall health and wellness — including bowel and bladder function, sexual function, and musculoskeletal changes — that otherwise would not be reversed with just exercise.”
A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Nature Medicine.