By Eva Van Den Berg
A climbing enthusiast and lover of extreme sports, Frenchman Grégoire Courtine, a 44-year-old specialist in neurorehabilitation, has experienced on numerous occasions and first-hand how important movement is in life. For this reason, this associate professor at the Centre for Neuroprosthetics at the Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne (EPFL), in Switzerland, has for some time now devoted his attention to the treatment of spinal cord injuries. After several years of research into new ways of reversing the damage caused by such injuries, he has created a revolutionary invention that was also recognised by the conferring of a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2019. At his start-up, GTX Medical, he conceived a kind of “electronic bridge” which forms a bypass around the location of the spinal cord injury, enabling the brain of patients suffering from these injuries to take control of their legs and allow them to walk. “This is a neuroprosthetic bridge that is implanted between the brain and the patient’s lumbar spinal cord”, explains Courtine. “With the aid of wireless technology, this system transmits signals directing movement from the brain to the legs through the electrical stimulation of the lower part of the spinal cord, thus helping the damaged spinal nerves to recover.”
In the auditorium at National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., where Courtine presented his project together with the four other Rolex laureates, the scientist explained that when the order is given (from a tablet computer, for example) for electrodes to send electrical signals to the leg muscles, the signals activate areas of the spinal cord that reproduce the signals from the brain that enable the person to walk. This pioneering system has so far enabled three men who had been paralysed from the waist down for more than four years to regain the ability to walk. After a week of sessions they were able to stand up and walk with walking frames, and after five months of physiotherapy and of training the electronic bridge system, they were able to control their leg muscles at will and to walk for one hour without muscular exhaustion. Today, they can remain standing and walk short distances with the aid of crutches. The most exciting aspect of this system of stimulation through electrodes is that it would appear to be capable of going even further than implementing the order to move transmitted from the brain. All the indications are that the body’s natural stimulation system may itself be rebuilding the lost links between the brain and the spinal cord. This is still to be proved, but could potentially be an absolutely sensational achievement. Courtine believes that the more recent the spinal injuries are, the more effective the stimulators will be, and for this reason in his next clinical trial he plans to treat three patients who have suffered from paralysis for about a year. “I intend to continue developing treatments for spinal cord injuries until I find a cure”, he declares. He certainly seems to be on the right track to achieving his goal.
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