Researchers at Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have been working on developing new ways to help paralyzed patients walk again. Humans who have been paralyzed for a long tome have been able to move their legs in response to electrical stimulation in their spinal cords, but it has been difficult to control the movement. The EPFL researchers have been experimenting for years with rats, and have developed some exciting new approaches.
The scientists severed the rats’ spinal cords, and then applied electrical stimulation. They filmed the rats as they walked on their back legs while supported in a harness. Using this information, they were able to produce a series of synchronized motions that resulted in stepping movements. They were able to design a closed-loop control system that adjusts the motion of the separate parts of the leg as the rats walked. Each rat was eventually able to walk more than 1,000 steps, climb stairs, and even maneuver to avoid obstacles.
The hope is that a similar approach can be used for humans who are paralyzed. Rather than have to think or manual activate each individual motion required to take a step, such a system to take care of the complex sequence of muscle actions so that the patient can simply focus on direction. The team plans to start experiments with volunteer human subjects next year, and the group recent received a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to further their research.