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New implant offers hope to those with spinal cord injuries

Spinal cord injuries remain an unresolved medical challenge, although a new implant trialled by doctors in Sweden offers new hope to those who have suffered spinal cord injury and paralysis.

It's estimated that 2,500 people are injured or diagnosed with a spinal cord injury in the UK and between 250,000 and 500,000 globally every year.  

The majority of spinal cord injuries are due to traumatic causes including road traffic collisions, falls or violence.  Symptoms are permanent and include partial or complete loss of sensory function and motor control.  The bladder and bowel are also affected, with many diagnosed with a spinal cord injury losing complete control of the function of both.

As a catastrophic injury practitioner at Irwin Mitchell, I've represented clients who have suffered spinal cord injuries.  The nature of these injuries mean that when we are approached to act, our clients are often in difficult situations, early in their recovery and are unsure what they can do to get help with treatment, rehabilitation and to deal with the consequences of their injury.  

My colleagues and I are passionate about ensuring our clients who suffer spinal cord injuries have access to support and rehabilitation, with the expertise necessary to assist them in regaining their independence following a life-changing injury. This can often include securing early interim payments for specialist therapy which provides the intense rehabilitation our clients require.

It's accepted and recognised that early rehabilitation alongside adequate medical care will improve the long-term prognosis for an individual who has sustained a spinal cord injury.  Whilst significant gains can be made through rehabilitation and treatment, a spinal cord injury, to date, has not been curable.  Various scientific studies up to now have sought to restore movement in individuals with a spinal cord injury by electrically stimulating regions of the spinal cord although there has been no real success in finding a cure.

A new study and technology in Sweden has begun to challenge this, with the outcome leading to restoring the ability of an individual with a spinal cord injury to walk again.

Recent research and study

Scientists and doctors at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Sweden have trialled a new electronic implant which, when placed into the individual’s brain, has allowed a paralysed man to walk for the first time in 12 years.  The individual, Gert-Jan, suffered a spinal cord injury following a bicycle accident that left him paralysed.  In the footage showing Get-Jan walking, he was able to even climb stairs after being fitted with the implant.

The scientist, Gregoire Courtine who has worked on the study described the technology as a digital rebirth of the spinal cord.  Rather than using electrical stimulation, the team came up with a new approach and developed electronic implants designed to develop a 'wireless digital bridge' between the brain and spinal cord.  One implant is placed in the individual’s brain, just above the region responsible for leg movements and one is placed in the region of the spinal cord that controls the leg movements.  The brain signals are then converted into sequences of electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.  This activates the leg muscles to achieve movement. The system operates wirelessly, allowing the individual their independence.

In Gert-Jan’s case, the system took just minutes to calibrate, and he has been able to use it at home for over a year.  The researchers have also studied what happens when they switch the digital bridge off and report they have seen remarkable improvements in Gert-Jan’s motor skills even when the technology is not 'on.' So far, the technology has only been tested on Gert-Jan, but the scientists now hope to expand.

The future

This news is welcomed by all those in the spinal injuries community. There is clearly an unmet need to improve recovery and prognosis of those who sustain spinal cord injuries, and it may well be that the new implant technology leads the way to a potential new treatment and improved recovery for those who have sustained injury.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting people following a spinal injury at our dedicated spinal cord injury claims section of our web pages.

The system is still at an experimental stage but a leading UK spinal charity called it "very encouraging".”