Spinal Cord Implant Helps a Man With Parkinson's Walk

An experimental implant that delivers electrical stimulation to the spinal cord enabled a man with advanced Parkinson's disease to walk fluidly again.

Marc Gauthier, who was 62 when he received the transplant, had Parkinson's disease for more than two decades. He experienced severe gait impairments and frequent falls that did not respond to currently available therapies.

The researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) implanted the neuroprosthesis in Gauthier's lower back over the lumbosacral spinal cord. There, the stimulation activates the network of neurons running between the spinal cord and the leg muscles.

To personalize the stimulation, the scientists gathered data on Gauthier's walking deficits and patterns by placing sensors on his feet and legs. They configured the stimulation to compensate for any dysfunction.

The effects of the treatment, described in Nature Medicine, have lasted for two years.

Gauthier, who often experienced freezing of gait and used to fall five to six times a day, says the neuroprosthesis has dramatically improved his quality of life.

"It allows me to walk better. It allows me to do 5 kilometers without stopping, getting into an elevator. It sounds simple, but for me, before, it was impossible. I was skating, freezing. Now I'm walking quietly," Gauthier said in a video released by the EPFL.

Some people with the condition experience "freezing," which is a temporary, involuntary inability to move. It often occurs when initiating a step, turning, or navigating through doorways and may increase the risk of falling.

As the approach was tested only in one individual, it remains unclear if it can be effective in other Parkinson's disease patients. The Swiss team says a randomized, controlled clinical trial is needed and plans to test this technology in six patients with Parkinson's disease.

Spinal cord stimulation has been previously experimentally used to enable people paralyzed by spinal cord injury to stand on their own or walk short distances. The method also improved the gait of some Parkinson's disease patients, but results are usually modest, short-lived, or inconsistent.

Parkinson's disease symptoms

Each year, nearly 90,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes problems with movement, mental health, sleep, and pain.

Symptoms generally develop slowly over years, and their progression may differ from person to person.

According to the Parkinson's Foundation, these may be the early signs of the condition:

  • Tremor in finger, thumb, hand, or chin.
  • Handwriting is getting smaller.
  • Loss of smell, which is not caused by a cold, flu, or a stuffy nose.
  • Trouble sleeping or/and sudden movements during sleep.
  • Difficulty moving or walking, feeling stiff in body, arms, or legs.
  • Constipation.
  • A voice that becomes very soft or sounds breathy and/or hoarse.
  • A serious, depressed, or mad facial expression.
  • Feeling dizzy when standing up, fainting.
  • Stooping, leaning, or slouching while standing.

If you have more than one of the symptoms mentioned above, consider discussing them with your doctor.

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