An Italian man left paralysed from the waist down by a motorbike accident five years ago can now walk for a kilometre because of a revolutionary medical breakthrough using electrical pulses to move his limbs.
Michel Roccati suffered life-changing injuries in 2017 but the new technique — that marries artificial intelligence with electrical implants fitted to an undamaged section of his spinal cord — has allowed him to live independently.
Video released by researchers shows Mr Roccati taking steps with the aid of a specially-adapted walker. He was able to take his first steps immediately after the implants were fitted.
By following a rigorous training regime he is now able to walk up stairs and live independently in an apartment close to his parents’ home.
“After the first day, I was able to walk if the body was supported,” said Mr Roccati, who was aged 29 when the treatment started. “That was very emotional.”
The treatment has been successfully repeated with two other men, aged 32 and 41, who were also left paralysed from the waist down after motorbike accidents. They have been able to swim and cycle after the treatment, according to a paper in Nature Medicine published today.
The researchers say the challenge is now to scale up the use of the technique to help more people and to further develop the process so it can be controlled by a smartphone and a mini computer embedded in the body.
The system that has allowed Mr Roccati to change his life is controlled by two buttons on his walker that are linked wirelessly to a tablet computer.
It forwards the signal to a pacemaker fitted in Mr Roccati’s abdomen, which in turn triggers the implants that stimulate spinal neurons, allowing his legs to move.
Electrical stimulation of the spinal cords has been used before but only by adapting technology that was originally designed to treat pain. Researchers hope that the new technique will work better and improve the range of movement.
“Our stimulation algorithms are still based on imitating nature,” said Prof Grégoire Courtine, from one of the co-developers of the system based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
“By controlling these implants, we can activate the spinal cord like the brain would do naturally to have the patient stand, walk, swim or ride a bike, for example.”
“All three patients were able to stand, walk, pedal, swim and control their torso movements in just one day, after their implants were activated.”
“We need one day to have this technology to be treatment available for everyone. It's not the case yet, but it hopefully will be in within a few years.”