Thanks to an experimental spinal implant in his lower back, a man with Parkinson’s disease has experienced a drastic improvement in his ability to walk without falling.
Marc Gauthier, a 63-year-old from Bordeaux in France, was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative condition over 20 years ago. The disease is characterized by uncontrollable movements and coordination problems, and being at an advanced stage, Gauthier’s legs would repeatedly freeze up, causing him to fall over multiple times a day. As a result of the implant, this no longer happens.
The implant is what’s known as a neuroprosthetic device and delivers electrical stimulation to the spinal cord, in the hopes of activating dysfunctional neural circuits that affect how someone walks. This approach has been used in people with Parkinson’s disease before, putting implants over the upper and middle spine, but this showed only modest results.
In Gauthier’s case, researchers instead implanted the device in the lower back, over a region called the lumbosacral spinal cord; when stimulated, this activates the neurons between the spinal cord and leg muscles, correcting “incorrect” signals from the brain caused by the disease. The level of stimulation was personalized to Gauthier by analyzing how he walked before the procedure.
Now, movement sensors placed on Gauthier’s legs detect when he is walking, triggering the implant to switch on and deliver electrical stimulation to his spine. As a result, even two years after the implant was installed, there have been significant improvements in his walking ability. When re-analyzing his walking after implantation, researchers found it was closer to that of a healthy control than a fellow Parkinson’s patient.
“Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometres [3.7 miles]. It’s incredible,” he told the Guardian.
Whilst the treatment has worked well in this case, it’s not clear whether it will become a widespread treatment for the disease, which currently has no cure. “There’s not enough data in this paper to conclude that this approach will be better than current standard treatments,” said Susan Harkema, a neuroscientist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, told Nature.
Further research, with more participants, will be required to fully establish if this kind of spinal cord stimulation is an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The research team is planning on studying the treatment in another six patients next year.
Regardless of how that research pans out, the procedure has certainly had a significant impact on Gauthier’s day-to-day life. “I would fall five to six times per day. I would often stay home as well, and was forced to stop working three years ago. For example, walking into a store was impossible before, because of the freezing of gait that would happen in those environments,” Gauthier said in a press briefing.
“And now it doesn’t happen anymore.”
The study is published in Nature Medicine.