Patients confined to their homes with severe Parkinson’s can now walk more easily thanks to a spinal implant created by Canadian researchers. The device is inserted into the spine and works by electrically stimulating the spinal cord.
As Parkinson’s disease develops and becomes more severe, sufferers’ ability to walk becomes more and more impaired. Many patients fall over or simply freeze on the spot, making everyday activities extremely difficult. The new treatment is helping those who have become housebound or confined to wheelchairs by their condition.
"Most of our patients have had the disease for 15 years and have not walked with any confidence for several years," Professor Mandar Jog of Canada’s Western University told BBC News in an interview.
"For them to go from being home-bound, with the risk of falling, to being able to go on trips to the mall and have vacations is remarkable for me to see."
Last year, Jog and his colleagues reported the results of a pilot study in the journal Movement Disorders. They inserted their spinal cord stimulators into five men who suffered from gait disturbances and freezing as a result of Parkinson’s.
The team found that after six months, step length, walking speed, and the ability to stand from sitting improved by 39 percent, 42 percent, and 50 percent respectively. Meanwhile, the patients’ confidence in their ability to perform activities without losing their balance improved by 71 percent. What’s more, six months after surgery the participants experienced zero instances of frozen gait, and no adverse side effects were reported.
One patient had been pretty much housebound for about six years, but following the treatment he went on holiday to the East Coast with his wife.
"His wife was literally crying when she told us he went from their cottage and walked up and down the beach, on his own," Jog told Medscape. Another participant was no longer confined to a scooter or wheelchair to get around.
However, the researchers note themselves that this was merely a small pilot study so a larger and longer-lasting clinical study will now need to be carried out to replicate the results on a larger scale. If the treatment proves just as safe and effective in a much larger number of people, it could change the lives of many patients whose movement is restricted by severe Parkinson’s disease.
The team thinks their device works by boosting signals between the spinal cord and the brain. When we walk, our brains send instructions to our limbs allowing us to move. The spinal cord then sends a message back to the brain to confirm that the action has been carried out. Parkinson’s appears to disrupt this signal, restricting our ability to walk properly.
A number of patients who have recently received the treatment are now experiencing life-changing improvements. One patient, 66-year-old Gail Jardine, can now enjoy walks with her husband again for the first time in two years, BBC News reports. She was experiencing frequent episodes of freezing and would fall over multiple times a day. She received the implant two months ago and is already reaping the benefits.
"I haven't fallen since I started the treatment,” she told BBC News. “It's given me more confidence and I'm looking forward to taking more walks with Stan and maybe even go on my own."
[H/T: BBC News]