One thing we all know: while a serious spinal injury can often lead to paralysis, if that paralysis does happen, it’s definitely permanent. This is however changing; in 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Grégoire Courtine came along with the support from the Awards to assist him going further into his research to find solutions.
The reason spinal injuries cause paralysis is damage to the spinal cord, which means that the brain and nervous system effectively lose the ability to control parts of the body. Courtine, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, has been busy trying to harness the power of technology to bridge that gap, leading to a remarkable invention with the power to profoundly change lives for the better.
Born in France, he was inspired to investigate the science of movement by his own love of outdoor activities and extreme sports, and he undertook post-doctoral research into the subject at UCLA in the US. It was while he was there that he became involved as a research associate with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, a charitable organisation that supports paralysed people and funds research into curing paralysis, and that is named after the late actor, who was himself paralysed following a horse-riding accident. After meeting patients whose lives had been upended by spinal injuries, some of them no older than he was, Courtine decided that he wanted to do something to help those people get back on their feet.
He dedicated himself to the subject, first at the University of Zurich and then at EPFL—and, after many years of research, came up with a rather miraculous piece of technology. It’s known as a neuroprosthetic bridge, and it effectively hooks the brain back up to the lower spinal cord, reading the signals the brain is trying to send and using wireless technology to transmit them to their intended destination, which it does by electrically stimulating the spinal cord in the lumbar region. The result is that patients’ brains are able to communicate with their legs as they usually would, which means they can undergo rehabilitation and eventually learn how to walk again. They can even use a voice command to turn the system on and off. The technology is also expected ultimately to result in neurons in the spinal cord regrowing, with the possibility that patients could recover enough to reduce their reliance on the bridge itself.
Long term, the plan is to develop a fully implantable brain-spine interface. It’s something that eventually could even become a common treatment—and if it does, paralysis caused by spinal injuries could become a thing of the past.