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Implant Restores Walking

7 November 2023

A man with advanced Parkinson's can walk again after receiving an implant that stimulates nerves in his spine.

Marc Gauthier, 63, from Bordeaux, France, is the first person to try out the device, saying it has given him a second chance in life. He can now walk for miles, when previously he was often housebound and had several falls a day. The treatment appears to have stopped the shuffling and sudden freezing that many Parkinson's patients struggle with. When the device is switched on, his gait looks almost normal. 

Marc said: "I turn on the stimulation in the morning and I turn off in the evening. This allows me to walk better and to stabilise. Right now, I'm not even afraid of the stairs anymore. Every Sunday, I go to the lake, and I walk around 6km. It's incredible."

The stimulator sits on the lumbar region of the spinal cord, which sends messages to the leg muscles. Marc is still in control - his brain gives the instructions - but the epidural implant adds electrical signals for a smoother end result. It is wired to a small impulse generator with its own power supply, implanted under the skin of Marc's abdomen. After surgery to fit the device, Marc had weeks of rehabilitation to programme it, using feedback sensors on his legs and shoes.

The work is a collaboration between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the city's hospital and university, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research and the University of Bordeaux. The team will now try the device in six more Parkinson's patients, using funding from the Michael J Fox Foundation.

For some, a brain implant - deep brain stimulation - might be able to do the job instead. But the medical team told a press briefing that had not been an option for Marc, who already had an older brain implant that would have been hard to replace.

The treatment is not a cure - Parkinson's is a progressive condition that worsens over time. Those with the disease have too little of the chemical dopamine in their brain because some of the nerve cells that make it have stopped working. Symptoms include involuntary shaking, slow movement, and stiff and inflexible muscles.

Parkinson's UK research director, David Dexter, said: "This is quite an invasive procedure but could be a game-changing technology to help restore movement in people with advanced Parkinson's, where the drugs are no longer working well. The research is still at a very early stage and requires much more development and testing before it can be made available to people with Parkinson's. However, this is a significant and exciting step forward and we hope to see this research progress quickly."

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