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Article published in Science Translational Medicine

Closed-loop neuromodulation of spinal sensorimotor circuits controls refined locomotion after comple...

14-16 November 2012 International Conference on Neurorehabilitation

NEUWalk scientists Prof. Courtine and Prof. Micera participate in the conference.

Results published in Science and Nature Magazine

Rats with spinal cord injuries and severe paralysis are now walking thanks to researchers from NEUWa...

Walking again after spinal cord injury

Rats with spinal cord injuries and severe paralysis are now walking and running thanks to a novel neurorehabilitation. The therapy uses electrical and chemical stimulation of the spinal cord to activate own innate gait-circuits that in combination with willpower-based step training leads to voluntary control over the otherwise paralyzed legs.


It is well known that the brain and spinal cord can adapt and recover from moderate injury. But until now the spinal cord expressed so little plasticity after severe injury that recovery was impossible. Here, researchers prove that, under certain conditions, plasticity and recovery can take place in these severe cases, but only if the dormant spinal column is first woken up. To do this, Courtine and his team injected a chemical solution of monoamine agonists into the rats. These chemicals trigger cell responses by binding to specific dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin receptors located on the spinal neurons. This cocktail replaces neurotransmitters released by brainstem pathways in healthy subjects and acts to excite neurons and ready them to coordinate movement. Additionally, the scientists electrically stimulated the spinal cord with electrodes implanted on the spinal cord. “This stimulation sends continuous electrical signals through nerve fibers to the chemically excited neurons that control leg movement. All that is left was to initiate that movement,” explains Rubia van den Brand, contributing author to the study.


To test this theory, researcher replaced the conventional treadmill step training with a robotic device that supported the rats against gravity. This encouraged the rats to push themselves toward a chocolate reward located on the other end of the platform.

“What they deemed willpower-based training translated into a threefold increase in nerve fibers throughout the brain and spine,” says Janine Beauparlant-Heutschi, other contributing author to the study.
In principle, the radical reaction of the rat spinal cord offers reason to believe that people with spinal cord injury will soon have some options on the horizon. Courtine is optimistic that human, phase-two trials will begin in a year or two.


Contact: Prof. Dr. Grégoire Courtine, Center for Neuroprosthetics and Brain Mind Institute, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL)