Problems with walking can affect about 90% of people with advanced Parkinson’s disease. Furthermore, these walking disorders are often resistant to the treatments that are currently available.
While searching for a solution, neuroscientists and neurosurgeons at the universities of Bordeaux, France, and Lausanne, Switzerland, plus the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, have designed an electronic device to correct these walking disorders and enabled a patient to walk comfortably, confidently and without falling. It’s a major breakthrough.
Grégoire Courtine, Professor of neuroscience at Lausanne University Hospital explains the problem: “Unlike conventional treatments for Parkinson’s, which target the regions of the brain directly affected by the loss of dopamine-producing neurons, this neuroprosthetic targets the spinal area responsible for activating leg muscles while walking, which is not seemingly affected by Parkinson’s disease.”
Jocelyne Bloch, neurosurgeon and professor at Lausanne, and co-director of the NeuroRestore centre with Courtine, adds: “It is impressive to see how by electrically stimulating the spinal cord in a targeted manner, in the same way as we have done with paraplegic patients, we can correct any walking disorders caused by Parkinson’s disease.”
The implantation of this device in a patient wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of Dr Erwan Bezard, neuroscientist at Bordeaux University. He’s dedicated his career to understanding neurodegenerative diseases. His expertise in Parkinson’s was essential to produce the conceptual and technological detail know-how for using the device in patients.
The researchers proudly tell the story of Marc, their first patient. Two years ago, the team of scientists and doctors were ready to carry out their first operation at Lausanne University Hospital. After a precision neurosurgical procedure, Marc, from Bordeaux, was fitted with this new neuroprosthetic comprising an electrode field placed against the spinal cord which controls walking, and an electrical impulse generator was implanted under the skin of his abdomen.
Using a targeted programming of spinal-cord stimulations, which adapts in real time to movements, Marc has quickly seen his walking disorder subside. After several weeks of rehabilitation with the neuroprosthetic, he is now able to walk almost normally. He currently uses his neuroprosthetic for around eight hours a day, only turning it off when he is sitting down for a long time or when he’s sleeping.
“I turn on the stimulation in the morning and I turn it off in the evening. This allows me to walk better and to stabilise. Right now, I’m not even afraid of the stairs any more. Every Sunday I go to the lake, and I walk around six kilometres. It’s incredible.”