Man paralysed in motorbike accident regains ability to walk through new implant

New electrical device allows three patients to stand, walk, and ride a bike again

Undated handout photo of Michel Roccati, an Italian man who became paralysed after a motorcycle accident four years ago, walking aided by an electrical implant. Photograph: EPFL/Alain Herzog/PA Wire

A man who was paralysed in a motorcycle accident in 2017 has regained the ability to walk after doctors implanted an electrode device in his spine to reactivate his muscles.

Michel Roccati lost all feeling and movement in his legs after the crash that severed his spinal cord, but can stand and walk with electrical stimulation that is controlled wirelessly from a tablet.

The research team said the electrical implant had helped Mr Roccati and two other patients – all three of them men aged 29 to 41 – to stand, walk, ride a bike and even kick their legs in a swimming pool, raising hopes that small, implantable devices can help paralysed people regain more movement.

Mr Rocatti uses the device as part of his routine training and rehabilitation to help strengthen his muscles and keep fit. “Now it’s a part of my daily life,” he said.


Developed by Prof Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and Prof Jocelyne Bloch, a neurosurgeon at Lausanne University Hospital, the system uses a soft, flexible electrode that is laid on top of the spinal cord nerves, underneath the vertebrae.

The electrode delivers electrical pulses to spinal cord nerves that control different muscles in the legs and torso. The pulses, in turn, are controlled by software on a tablet that issues instructions for a certain action, such as standing, walking, cycling, or kicking the legs for swimming.


The device helped all three patients to stand within hours of the operation, but their performance improved with three to four months of practice and training. “It was not perfect at the beginning, but they could train very early to have a more fluid gait,” said Prof Bloch. She added that she expected similar results in women.

“Thanks to this technology, we’ve been able to target individuals with the most serious spinal cord injuries,” Prof Courtine said. “By controlling these implants, we can activate the spinal cord like the brain would do naturally to have the patient stand, walk, swim or ride a bike.”

The patients are following a training regime based on the stimulation programme that has let them rebuild lost muscle and move about more independently, even allowing them to stand and drink in a bar. To perform a particular movement, the person selects the appropriate option from their tablet.

The tablet then contacts a pacemaker-like device in their abdomen that sends signals to the implanted electrode. This stimulates the different sets of muscles for the right time and duration to push up into a standing position, or swing the legs to walk, for example. Details of the system are reported in Nature Medicine. – Guardian/PA