“Arise, take up thy bed, and walk” – John 5:16
A BBC news article from couple a days ago, featuring recent findings of Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) published in the journal Science, tells us a story about possibilities to restore ability to walk in paralyzed rats, a “groundbreaking achievement of technology”, as described by experts. This is a sign of hope for almost 1.3 million Americans suffering from lower limbs paralysis due to the spinal cord injury, and for many more worldwide.
Since our spinal cord transmits electrical impulses from our brain, and translates them into “fine movements at the motor neuron level”, as New Scientist explains, any serious injury causing disruption of this communication channel leads to paralysis.
Last year, researchers at the University of Louisville and the University of California, Los Angeles, were able to restore functions of lower limbs to 4 patients suffering from the paralysis from the waist down. They were able to do so by implanting 16 electrodes to their spinal cords which restored communication between their brains and their legs. Although none of them is able to walk yet, they did regain permanent control over their bladders and bowls, sexual function and capacity to regulate their body temperature and blood pressure. They were able to stand, move their lower limbs, while some could even lift weights of up to 220 lbs. with their legs.
Researchers at EPFL have gone even further, unfortunately, so far only with lab rats. These rats, after receiving treatment involving similar chemical and electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, had what appeared to be fully restored functions of their central nervous system.
The downside of this story is that such treatments require patients to be connected to devices with wired electrodes embedded under their skin, that they may move their limbs. So, in order to make these kinds of treatments a permanent solution, patients would require implants which would perform chemical and electrical stimulation of their spines on the move. Any such implant could not be inflexible; otherwise it would injure surrounding tissue, and would not work well for prolonged periods of time.
Back to good news again; EPFL team was able to make an implant that is soft and flexible enough to do the job. It was tested on rats, and it worked perfectly for two months. Paralyzed rats were able to walk again. It will take time to adapt this technology to work on humans, but paralysis might not last long anymore.
Miracles happen all the time. From the dawn of civilization onwards many are tales that recount inexplicable phenomena people have witnessed or have heard about. Today we mostly stopped believing in those tales, since word of mouth ceased to be our main vehicle transporting cultural heritage and practical skills. It may also be due to the development of our rationale worldview, or Hollywood taking over our imagination and prepping our fantasies for us, but there are still miracles out there, performed not by medicine men, prophets and knights in shiny armors. Instead, our modern heroes usually wear white cloaks, hazmat suits, or sometimes, more simply, just jeans.