Spinal implant lets man with Parkinson’s walk again

"I turn on the stimulation in the morning … Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometers. It’s incredible."

A French man with advanced Parkinson’s disease has regained his ability to walk thanks to a spinal implant that stimulates the nerves running between his spinal cord and leg muscles.

The challenge: Marc Gauthier was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was just 36 years old, and while medication and deep brain stimulation were able to treat his initial tremors and stiffness, they couldn’t prevent him from developing a serious walking disorder in his 50s.

“I practically could not walk anymore without falling frequently, several times a day,” said Marc, who is now 62 years old. “In some situations, such as entering a lift, I’d trample on the spot, as though I was frozen there, you might say.”

“This allows me to walk better and to stabilize. I’m not even afraid of the stairs anymore.”

Marc Gauthier

What’s new? Marc’s problem is unfortunately not unusual — about 90% of people with Parkinson’s develop a disabling walking disorder in the disease’s advanced stages. However, unlike anyone else in the world, an experimental spinal cord stimulator is now helping him overcome his mobility issue.

“I turn on the stimulation in the morning and I turn off in the evening,” said Marc. “This allows me to walk better and to stabilize. 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.”

Marc’s spinal implant was developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), who have also shown remarkable success reversing paralysis with spinal stimulation.

While others have tried to use spinal stimulation to help people with Parkinson’s control their walking, results have been inconsistent, and any positive impact is often modest and temporary. The EPFL team’s system has now been working consistently for about two years.

“Our specialty is in our understanding of how to stimulate the spinal cord in order to be very precise in the way we adjust leg movement,” Grégoire Courtine, the EPFL neuroscientist who developed the stimulation technique, told Nature. “The novelty of this study is to leverage this understanding and technology in Parkinson’s.”

A man walking next to a body of water with a castle in the background
Marc can now walk almost normally thanks to his spinal implant. Credit: ONWARD Medical

How it works: In 2021, the EPFL group teamed up with Lausanne University Hospital to place electrodes on the part of Marc’s spinal cord responsible for controlling walking. They then connected those electrodes to a neurostimulator implanted under the skin of his abdomen.

The researchers then worked with Marc to configure the spinal implant so that it would deliver precisely the right amount of stimulation to help him move his legs. After several weeks of rehabilitation, he was able to walk almost normally.

“At no point is [the patient] controlled by the machine,” Eduardo Martin Moraud, a neural engineer who helped build the system, told the Guardian. “It’s just enhancing his capacity to walk.”

A trial of the spinal implant in six people with Parkinson’s will launch in 2024.

Looking ahead: Success in one patient isn’t enough to prove a therapy works, but the EPFL team has received a $1 million donation from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to test the spinal implant in six people with Parkinson’s — that trial is expected to kick off next year.

Even if the spinal implant can help others regain lost mobility, it can’t prevent Parkinson’s from progressing. Experimental treatments that do aim to slow or stop the disease are showing promise, though, including stem cell therapies and lab-grown brain cells.

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