A paraplegic man has walked again for the first time after undergoing a pioneering surgery.
Adam Fritz, 26, was able to walk 3.66 metres with the help of electrodes that doctors had implanted around his knees. The electrodes serve as a go-between to transmit signals from his brain, detected using a special cap, to electrodes which stimulate the muscles in his legs, completely bypassing his damaged spinal column.
Fritz lost the use of his legs five years ago when the motorcycle he was riding collided with some furniture which had fallen off a lorry in front of him.
“It was incredible,” he told Sky News. “When you’re first injured, you’re sitting in hospital hoping you’ll walk again but when it actually happened, it was a dream come true.
“I actually did it and it was something I’ll never forget.”
This technique differs from previous ones that relied on patients to use their hands to press buttons to control the electrodes in their legs, rather like a remote control. However, this method uses the power of the patient’s brain alone to control the electrodes.
Dr Zoran Nenadic, a neurologist at the University of California, said in a statement: “We’ve been able to, for the first time, allow a person to walk hands-free without pressing buttons. It’s a short distance, of course, but in terms of significance, it’s a very exciting step.”
His colleague Dr An Do agreed: “Even after years of paralysis the brain can still generate robust brain waves that can be harnessed to enable basic walking. We showed you can restore intuitive, brain-controlled walking after a complete spinal cord injury.” The results have been published in a paper in the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation.
However, Prof Simone di Giovanni, a specialist in restorative neuroscience at Imperial College London, warned that these techniques can only be part of the solution to spinal cord injury. He told BuzzFeed News: “These are excellent devices between now and when hopefully we find a real cure for spinal cord injury.”
For patients with total paralysis, he says, this procedure will give back movement. But at the moment it lacks feedback – so patients cannot feel their legs, which is “vital for locomotion.” It may be that this can be added in future, but di Giovanni said that the “the intrinsic rewiring of the connection between the brain and the spinal cord”, using the body’s own tissue, will be the key to real repairs of spinal cord injuries.
Such techniques have already shown real successes. Darek Fidyka’s spinal cord was almost completely severed in a knife attack six years ago. Three years later, a team led by Prof Geoff Raisman, chair of neural regeneration at University College London’s Institute of Neurology, took nerve cells from Fidyka’s nose and used them to repair the spinal nerve.
Raisman told BuzzFeed News that these techniques will lead to a “major change in their way of life” for “virtually every spinal cord injured patient” within the next few decades. “It’s the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane that flew for 100 metres for 10 seconds,” he said. “My team can’t turn it into a jet liner, but others can.”