Three paralyzed men are walking again thanks to targeted neurotechnology

Spinal implants deliver intermittent bursts to stimulate movement.

  • Three paralyzed men are walking in Switzerland thanks to modified spinal implants.
  • The implants provided intermittent as opposed to continuous stimulation.
  • This isn't a cure for paralysis, but the work appears to indicate a promising future.

Three paralyzed men are walking again in Switzerland with the help of a team at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The innovative rehabilitation process the trio went through is now being studied to mimic its results for others in similar circumstances.

In terms of the treatment, the men first walked on a treadmill while being supported by a gurney-like device as they received jolts from sensors that were placed on their legs and feet. They then left the treadmill and walked across the ground while still receiving electric stimulation. A few months later, they were able to regain their ability to walk without the assistance of any sort of electrical stimulation whatsoever.

It's worth breaking down some of the details that went into each stage of the process: on the treadmill, for instance, participants adjusted the elevation of their step, the speed of their stride, and were asked to see if they could stop moving their legs even though they were receiving electrical stimulation. They then walked on the treadmill for an hour. They then did this activity for three months, participating in rehab 4–5 times per week. After this time, they were then able to walk hands-free without the 'hip assist' provided by the gurney-like device.

One of the curiosities that occurred during this process was the discovery that intermittent stimulation works. Continuous electric stimulation of the spinal cord, on the other hand, enabled rats to walk again, but it didn't have the same results in humans. Indeed, when it was used on the participants, they reported a loss of sensory awareness as to where their limbs even were. This appears to be explained by the fact that areas of the body that contain a single motor neuron seem to respond more effectively to low-grade stimulation than a continuous loop.

The results described here don't represent a blanket cure for paralysis. It's worth noting, for instance, that each stimulation of the spine was personalized to the three participants. The scientists at Lausanne created "an atlas of motor neuron activation maps" using a combination of MRI scans and CT scans.

But that doesn't make the results here any less impressive, noteworthy, or inspiring. As reported by the BBC, one of the doctors noted one of the patient's determination to succeed —

"I came with my daughter, Charlotte, who was one month old at the time. As we approached David, he looked her in the eye and said, 'I will walk before you'.

"When Charlotte took her first step she was 14 months old, by which time David was walking by Lake Geneva.

"He said to her, 'I have beaten you.'"

The study, which was published in Nature, can be read in full here.

Image source: Nature

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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.