A Parkinson’s patient can now walk 6km (3.7 miles) thanks to an implant targeting the spinal cord. The Guardian reports that the man — 62-year-old “Marc” from Bordeaux, France — developed severe mobility impairments from the degenerative disease. “I practically could not walk anymore without falling frequently, several times a day,” he said in a press release announcing the breakthrough. “In some situations, such as entering a lift, I’d trample on the spot, as though I was frozen there, you might say.” Wearing the spinal implant allows him to walk “almost normally” as the research team eyes a full clinical trial.
Marc underwent a “precision neurosurgical procedure” two years ago at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), which helped facilitate the research. The surgery fitted him with an electrode field placed against his spinal cord and an electrical impulse generator under the skin of his abdomen. Although conventional Parkinson’s treatments often target brain regions affected by the loss of dopamine-producing neurons, this approach instead focuses on the spinal area associated with activating leg muscles for walking.
The procedure used a personalized map of Marc’s spinal cord, identifying the specific locations signaling leg movements. He wears a movement sensor on each leg that tells the implant he’s trying to walk; it then switches on and sends electrical impulses to the targeted spinal neurons, adapting to his movement in real-time.
“In response to precise stimulation of the lumbar spinal cord, I’ve observed for the first time remarkable improvements of gait deficits due to Parkinson’s disease,” project supervisor Jocelyne Bloch, professor and neurosurgeon at CHUV Lausanne University hospital, said in a webinar discussing the patient’s success. “I really believe that these results open realistic perspectives to develop a treatment.”
The patient says he could walk practically normally with the stimulation after several weeks of rehab. He now wears it for around eight hours daily, only turning it off when sleeping or lying down for a while. “I turn on the stimulation in the morning and I turn off in the evening,” he said. “This allows me to walk better and to stabilise. Right now, I’m not even afraid of the stairs anymore. Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometres. It’s incredible.”
The researchers caution that there’s still a vast chasm between tailoring the approach to one person vs. optimizing it for wide-scale use. Co-leads Grégoire Courtine and Bloch are working on a commercial version of the neuroprosthetic in conjunction with Onward Medical. “Our ambition is to provide general access to this innovative technology to improve the quality of life of Parkinson’s patients significantly, all over the world,” they said.
In the meantime, research on six new patients will continue in 2024. The team says a “generous donation” of $1 million from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is funding the upcoming work. In 2021, the actor’s organization announced it had contributed over $1.5 billion to Parkinson’s research.