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“It’s an amazing feeling,” says David, visibly overwhelmed by the experience. A sports accident he suffered in 2010 had left him with an incomplete spinal cord injury. Now the 28-year-old can walk again. His steps may be a bit shaky, but he is making them voluntarily.
While it must feel almost too good to be true for David, Professor Grégoire Courtine and Professor Jocelyne Bloch see it as confirmation that their approach works. The scientist at the EPFL in Lausanne and the surgeon at the Lausanne University Hospital are currently conducting a clinical trial dubbed STIMO. The abbreviation stands for “Stimulation Movement Overground”, which describes an approach that combines two different treatments: precise electrical stimulation of the spinal cord and intensive robot-assisted movement training.
David and two other patients with similar injuries have already completed the study. The results are nothing short of impressive. All three improved their ability to move and control their muscles considerably within a mere five months. The truly mind-blowing finding is, however, that the improved motor function persisted when the stimulator was turned off!
The scientists have not yet deciphered the mechanism in its entirety. It seems as if the stimulation - for want of better terms - “awakens” what is considered “dormant” spinal cord tissue below the injury site.
This development is, however, merely the first step. The teams headed by Courtine and Bloch already have ideas how to improve the method. A phase II study involving a larger group of patients is the next step on the way to clinical use.
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