Marc, a 63-year-old from Bordeaux, France, has lived with Parkinson’s disease for more than two decades. The disease had increasingly hindered his mobility, causing balance problems, freezing gait, and falls. However, his life has been transformed after becoming the first recipient of a groundbreaking spinal implant that stimulates the leg muscles. “I practically could not walk anymore without falling frequently, several times a day. In some situations, such as entering a lift, I’d trample on the spot, as though I was frozen there, you might say,” he said. “Right now, I’m not even afraid of the stairs anymore. Every Sunday, I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometers [3.7 miles]. It’s incredible.”
Parkinson’s Disease and the Promise of New Technology
Parkinson’s disease results from the gradual loss of dopamine-producing neurons, which leads to walking difficulties in advanced stages for most patients. The drug levodopa, also known as L-DOPA, is prescribed to increase dopamine concentrations and helps to reduce some symptoms. No current treatments can restore normal movement, however.
The experimental spinal implant targets the area responsible for leg muscle activation. It was developed by Swiss researchers who built a device to reconnect the brain and spinal cord, restoring the ability to walk in people who have been paralyzed. “It is impressive to see how by electrically stimulating the spinal cord in a targeted manner, in the same way as we have done with paraplegic patients, we can correct walking disorders caused by Parkinson’s disease,” said Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at the University Hospital Lausanne, who co-led the research.
Precision and Personalization
The researchers created a personalized anatomical map of Marc’s spinal cord to develop the implant, charting the precise locations relevant for signaling leg movement. The device can deliver stimulation directly to the spine with electrodes implanted at these sites. The patient is fitted with movement sensors on each leg. While walking, the implant automatically stimulates the appropriate spinal neurons. The device works by correcting abnormal signals from the brain. “At no point is [the patient] controlled by the machine,” said Eduardo Martin Moraud, an electrical and computer engineer at Lausanne University Hospital who is on the research team. “It’s just enhancing his capacity to walk.”
The initial study showed that the implant enhanced Marc’s walking and balance, mirroring healthy control participants more closely than other people with Parkinson’s disease. In addition, Marc reported significant quality-of-life improvements.
Taking the Next Steps
While the initial results are promising, a full trial is essential to demonstrate the implant’s clinical efficacy. The research team has enrolled six more patients and hopes to replicate the results as they continue development and testing.
“We need to be very selective when determining potential patients. Before surgery, we do MRIs, we do personalized models to really understand each patient: how long is their spinal cord, what is the region we’re going to target, and where are the roots,” Moraud said. “And then after surgery, it takes quite a while to sort out the electrodes. We have 15 electrodes, and we need to be able to recruit different functions for the right and the left leg. It’s a bunch of combinations.”
Karunesh Ganguly, a Professor of Neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the research, noted that the approach could “potentially address freezing of gait, which is currently hard to treat. It will be exciting to see how this generalizes to a larger population of patients.”
Paving the Way for Enhanced Mobility and Quality of Life
The spinal implant represents a significant stride forward in the quest for innovative Parkinson’s disease treatments. Marc’s success story provides hope to people facing mobility challenges due to the disease but also underscores the potential for transformative change in the field of neurology.
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