By Srivallabh Sabnivisu
5 years ago, Michel Roccati got into an accident while on his motorbike. Suddenly, a car swerved into him. Michel’s spinal cord was completely severed, and he had no feelings in his legs at all. Now, 29 year old Michel has been confined to a wheelchair for the last four years.
Figure (1), X-ray image of Michel’s spine
Unfortunately, the human body is incapable of regrowing severely damaged nerves. After a severe spinal cord injury, the muscles in that part of the body no longer receive electrical commands from the brain, making them incapable of completing actions that the body requires them to do. This eventually leads to paralysis of that specific body part.
The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center (NSCISC) reports that about 291,000 people are suffering from spinal cord injury in the US alone, and a further 17,000 new cases are reported every year.
Someone as injured as Michel has never been able to walk or do anything that requires the lower part of their body again… until now.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University, the largest university in the country of Israel, made 3D implants using human cells. They used tissue samples that are transformed into functioning spinal cord implants. This process is very similar to the process of spinal cord development in the human embryo. This tissue was then implanted into two different groups of paralyzed mice, namely, ‘Acute’ and ‘Chronic’. The acute group is essentially just the mice that had only been diagnosed with paralysis recently. On the other hand, the chronic group is the mice that have been diagnosed with paralysis for a long time, which, in human terms, is a year.
The results are better than you would expect: With the help of this implantation, 100% of the mice that had acute paralysis regained the ability to walk, and a surprising 80% of the mice with chronic paralysis also regained the ability to walk.
Professor Tal Dvir, leader of the research group, said that the mice were walking “quite well” even 3 months after the spinal cord was implanted.
Figure (2), BBC News, How the implant works
The implant stimulated muscles with electrical impulses, mimicking the brain’s actions, and could potentially lead to novel therapies for people with severe spinal injuries who struggle to stand, walk, and exercise. The system uses a soft, flexible electrode that is laid on top of the spinal cord nerves, underneath the vertebrae.
Personalized implants that can stimulate specific regions inside the bodies of patients can allow them to complete diverse body movements despite the most severe spinal cord injuries.
While electrical stimulation of the spinal cord has been a promising treatment option for restoring body movements in people with spinal cord injuries, these approaches have so far primarily involved repurposing technologies originally designed to treat pain, researchers said.
The heads of the research team who has led this programme, Professor Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and Professor Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University hospital, stressed that, “This is not the cure for spinal cord injury but is a critical step to improve people’s quality of life. It is not enough, it is not a cure, but I believe it is a significant improvement for the future.”
Though this process is not limited by age, different ages can respond differently to the implant, which may affect the result. There is also a condition that requires a minimum of 6cm of the spine to be healthy, for the implant to work. More advancements in technology such as this would be a great benefit to not only our world today, but for many generations to come.