Scientists have been able to restore locomotion in paralyzed rats using a combination of nerve stimulation and engaging the mind by having the rats complete simple tasks (like obtaining treats). In the newly published research, Dr. Grégroire Courtine (University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) and his team created a rat model of spinal cord injury. After designing a support jacket for the rats, they used a combination of neurotransmitters and electrical impulses to excite the nerves to produce involuntary stepping actions, which alone did not activate voluntary locomotion even after weeks of training. However, by placing a treat within a few steps of the animal’s reach, they were able to encourage the rats to begin walking, although spinal cord stimulation remained necessary. After a couple of months, the rats were actually able to sprint, but only with continued stimulation of the nerves. The researchers found that the nerves had actually reorganized to create new connections around the injury site. Similar research has been conducted on a human patient suffering from paralysis. In a recent interview published in The Scientist, Dr. V. Reggie Edgerton (UCLA) shared his own success with combined nerve stimulation and brain engagement at restoring some leg movement in the paralyzed patient. The hope is that these new research findings may one day help paralyzed humans fully regain the ability to walk.
R. van den Brand, et al., “Restoring Voluntary Control of Locomotion after Paralyzing Spinal Cord Injury,” Science, 336:1182-85, 2012.