Parkinson’s disease, affecting millions of people worldwide, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that impairs motor control. It is characterized by tremors, muscle rigidity, and difficulties with coordination as a result of dopamine-producing neurons in the central nervous system degenerating.
Existing treatments, primarily medication-based, aim to alleviate symptoms but often lose efficacy as the disease progresses. Among the major challenges encountered, walking difficulties (affecting around 90% of patients) significantly hinder patients’ independence.
In response to this issue, an international team of neuroscientists and neurosurgeons from EPFL/CHUV/UNIL (Switzerland), Inserm, and the University of Bordeaux has developed a spinal implant promising to restore mobility in individuals with Parkinson’s. This innovation, which has already transformed the life of a French patient, could offer a new perspective on life for patients. The study document published in Nature Medicine details the development of the neuroprosthesis.
Marc Gauthier, a 63-year-old resident of Bordeaux, had his life disrupted by Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed 25 years ago. Over time, his condition worsened, leading to severe mobility problems, including balance issues and freezing of gait, where the patient feels stuck and unable to move. These symptoms profoundly affected his independence, making him prone to frequent falls and limiting his ability to perform even simple daily tasks.
In the treatment of Parkinson’s disease in its advanced stages, Marc underwent a first-ever surgical procedure. The operation involved implanting a device composed of electrodes directly on his spinal cord, along with an electrical pulse generator beneath the skin of his abdomen. These electrodes were precisely placed in areas identified as crucial for leg movement control.
The implant emits electrical pulses that mimic the signals the brain should normally send to initiate and control walking. With motion sensors on each leg and targeted programming of spinal cord stimulations that change in real time, the implant turns on by itself and stimulates the spinal cord to fix the wrong signals that cause problems with walking.
This technology allowed Marc to regain a more normal gait and recover some of his lost autonomy. He reports, ‘I turn on the stimulation in the morning and turn it off at night. It allows me to walk better and stabilize myself. Even stairs no longer frighten me. Every Sunday, I go to the lakeside, and I walk about 6 kilometers. It’s fantastic.’
Towards Widespread Treatment
The success of Marc Gauthier’s spinal implant surgery is a promising case that opens exciting prospects for the treatment of the disease in many patients. However, for this technology to benefit others, it is essential to adapt and optimize it for larger-scale production and use. Currently, researchers, in collaboration with ONWARD Medical, are working on designing a commercial version of the neuroprosthesis. This version should be both effective, safe, and practical for daily use by patients.
The commitment of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (the actor from ‘Back to the Future,’ who has this disease) through a substantial donation is a crucial catalyst to propel this innovation from the lab to the clinic. The funds will enable clinical trials with six new patients, a necessary step to validate the effectiveness and safety of the implant in a larger and more diverse population. If these trials are successful, they will mark a turning point in managing Parkinson’s disease by offering a concrete solution to symptoms that resist current treatments. The impact of this success goes beyond Marc’s individual case. It represents tangible hope for millions of people suffering from this debilitating disease.