Parkinson’s is a disease that affects millions of people across the world every year. It is characterised by the gradual loss of motor control as nerve cells begin to degenerate and die, resulting in symptoms such as tremor, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty walking.
At later stages it can cause dementia and eventually results in death, typically due to a complete loss of motor control for vital bodily functions casing significant health complications. Treatment is focused primarily on reducing symptoms, with no cure or effective method to reverse neural degeneration currently available.
However, there is some hope on the horizon for early-stage sufferers. In a world first, a spinal implant has restored the ability of long-term Parkinson’s sufferer to walk.
Marc, a 63 year old man from Bordeaux, France is now able to walk normally for up to 6 km. Marc was diagnosed with Parkinson’s more than 20 years ago. As an advanced stage sufferer, he eventually developed severe mobility problems, including balance impairments and freezing of gait.
After receiving the implant, which aims to restore normal signalling between the leg muscles and the spine, he has been able to walk normally and regain his independence. Speaking to The Guardian, Marc was very happy with the results.
“I practically could not walk any more without falling frequently, several times a day. In some situations, such as entering a lift, I’d trample on the spot, as though I was frozen there, you might say. Right now, I’m not even afraid of the stairs any more. Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around 6 kilometres. It’s incredible,” he said.
The implant is yet to be tested in a full clinical trial (Marc is the very first recipient) but the Swiss team behind it have been working on successful technology to restore movement in paraplegics for years already. The principle behind the implant is that it directly stimulates the nerves responsible for movement, bypassing the degenerated neural signalling caused by the disease.
Electrodes were implanted directly in key locations around Marc’s spine. He wears a movement sensor on each leg and when he begins to walk, the implant automatically switches on and begins delivering pulses of stimulation to the spinal neurons.
Marc’s case and the data collected from the trial was published as a study in Nature Medicine. The study found that the implant improved walking and balance deficits. Marc’s walking more closely resembled that of healthy controls than that of other Parkinson’s patients. Marc also reported significant improvements in his quality of life.
A full clinical trial is still needed to demonstrate clinical efficacy. The authors of the study have enrolled a further six patients to assess whether the results can be replicated.
“At this stage it’s a proof of concept. Of course it’s not tomorrow, it will be at least five years of development and testing,” said Prof Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at EPFL, who co-led the work.