At the recent International Neuromodulation Society Congress in Sydney there was a moment that my jaw hit the floor. A presentation from Dr Reggie Edgerton from the USA challenged me to question everything I thought I knew about spinal cord injury. Reggie has been conducting experiments in animals and humans with severe spinal cord injuries that we would traditionally consider to have no chance to ever walk again. Yet, he showed us video footage of these animals doing just that and the humans voluntarily controlling their legs.
Swiss group led by Neuroscientist, Gregoire Courtine and Neurosurgeon, Jocelyne Bloch have repeated these experiments, in fact going one step further, demonstrating that they have restored the ability to walk in several severely injured spinal cord patients.
So how did they do this? The answer is spinal cord stimulation and chemical neuromodulation. It turns out that by applying targeted electrical stimulation and infusing certain drugs into the epidural space around the spinal cord they could switch back on the dormant lower part of the spinal cord that had been disconnected from the brain. Exactly what neural pathways they are accessing to be able to do this remains a mystery, and the neuroscience I learned in medical school would say this is impossible, yet we see it before our eyes, raising questions for me as to what treatments might be possible for other conditions we currently consider to be permanent or irreversible, like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.