2019 Rolex Awards Laureate
For medical scientist Grégoire Courtine, a broken back need no longer be a barrier to walking again.
In what would have seemed a miracle until very recently, the French researcher, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, has devised an electronic “bridge” to bypass the site of the back injury, enabling the brains of spinal patients to take command of their legs once more – and walk.Courtine’s research goal is an implantable neuroprosthetic bridge between the patient’s brain and lumbar spinal cord, supported by wireless technology. This system conveys signals from the brain controlling voluntary movement to the legs via electrical stimulation of the lower spinal cord and helps damaged spinal nerves recover.
“Movement has always been very important for me because of my love of sport,” Courtine, who is an avid rock climber and extreme sports fan, explains. “This is why I decided to study how the brain controls movement.” A chance meeting with a young paralysed athlete in a wheelchair crystallized his determination to find a solution.
Courtine, who is aged 42, recently helped restore walking in three long-paralysed men, who can now stand and walk short distances on crutches. He next plans to conduct a clinical trial involving three patients who have been paralysed for about a year. They will gradually re-learn to walk using the bridge and a suspended harness.
This experiment will establish the technological and conceptual framework for developing a fully implantable brain-spine interface that may one day become a common medical treatment for people who can no longer walk because of spinal injury.