Five breakthroughs in restoring mobility

Technological advances and surgical developments are offering new hope to those with reduced or no mobility

Epidural stimulation

This week, two paraplegic patients were able to take steps again after researchers implanted an electrical device in their lower backs. Teams from the University of Louisville and the Minnesota Mayo Clinic used electrical stimulation to excite the spinal cord, helping signals from the brain reach the affected muscles.

The brain implant detects spiking activity of the brain’s motor cortex. Seen here, a micro-electrode array and a model of a primate’s brain. Photograph: Alain Herzog / EPF

Brain implants

Led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in 2016, this uses an implant on the brain rather than the affected area to re-establish the link between the brain and spinal cord. The wireless brain implant was fitted to paralysed monkeys and enabled them to walk.

Cell transplant

In 2014, University College London’s institute of neurology developed a new cell transplant technique, which uses a surgical but revolutionary approach to spinal cord injury. Applied by surgeons from the Wroclaw University hospital, the team transplanted nerve-supporting cells from a patient’s nose into his spinal cord, allowing him to walk again.

Robotic trousers

research team led by Bristol University unveiled prototype robotic trousers at the British Science festival earlier this month, which they hope will help some disabled people walk unassisted. The trousers – which contain lightweight, artificial muscles – aim to serve as an assistive and rehabilitative device.


A mock up of the robotic trousers on display at the British Science festival in Hull. Photograph: John von Radowitz/PA Wire/PA Images


Virtual reality

VR could help restore mobility in paraplegic patients, according to 2016 research from Duke University, North Carolina. After 12 months of training, which involved using a VR headset and brain-controlled devices, all eight patients reported regaining some feeling in their legs.

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