A man with Parkinson’s disease who previously fell up to six times a day can now walk several kilometers without falling. He owes this improvement to a device that electrically stimulates his spinal cord.
A man with Parkinson’s disease can walk a lot better thanks to a device that electrically stimulates his spinal cord. This technique may be able to reduce movement disorders in people with Parkinson’s on a large scale in five years.
About 90 percent of people with Parkinson’s suffer from some movement problems, says neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine of the Technical University of Lausanne in Switzerland. These problems are currently being treated with medications, among other things. These target areas of the brain affected by a lack of dopamine, the chemical that regulates movement.
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Movement problems are also treated with deep brain stimulation. This is a technique that changes some of the abnormal electrical signals in the same brain areas that cause the symptoms.
However, many people with Parkinson’s disease don’t respond to these treatments, especially if their condition is already advanced, says Courtine. That is why he and his colleagues investigated whether directly stimulating the spinal cord could reduce walking problems.
The researchers focused on epidural electrical stimulation (EES), a technique that allows you to activate the nerve cells responsible for motor movements. Previous studies have shown that this technique can restore standing and walking in people paralyzed by spinal cord damage.
The team developed a form of EES that specifically targets nerve cells in the spinal cord that are activated when a person walks. This technique showed promise in non-human primates with Parkinson’s-like symptoms.
The researchers then tested their treatment on Marc, a 62-year-old man who has been suffering from Parkinson’s symptoms for about thirty years. He suffers from serious motor problems, including ‘freezing’: the phenomenon in which someone suddenly cannot walk any further.
Walk for miles
The researchers first mapped the nerve cells in Marc’s spinal cord. This allowed them to implant the electrical stimulators in such a way that they only target the nerve cells that control his legs.
They then placed sensors on Marc’s legs and shoes to monitor the electrical activity of the nerve cells that activate the muscles in his legs and feet. When the sensors measure the correct electrical activity, they activate the stimulators.
After three months of rehabilitation training with the stimulators, Marc hardly suffered from frostbite anymore, says Courtine. Marc says that previously he mainly struggled with frostbite when walking through a narrow path or trying to turn around while walking. As a result, he fell five or six times a day. Marc has been using the stimulator for two years now and says he hardly ever falls anymore. This allows him to walk several kilometers in a row without a walking stick or assistant.
The stimulation was specially tailored to Marc, who had particular difficulty moving one of his legs, says Courtine. That is why the researchers chose to provide extra stimulation to that leg.
Despite this customization, they think that such a technique could help many people with severe Parkinson’s. “In response to the precise stimulation of the spinal cord, we observed for the first time a remarkable improvement in gait disturbances due to Parkinson’s disease,” said neuroscientist Jocelyne Bloch, one of the researchers. ‘I truly believe that these results provide realistic perspectives for the development of treatments that reduce such gait disorders.’
The researchers hope to soon test the method on more people with Parkinson’s, says Bloch. According to Courtine, at least another five years are needed to further develop the technology before the treatment can be applied more widely.