A spinal implant has enabled a woman battling a rare neurodegenerative disease to walk for the first time in 18 months. She suffers from multiple system atrophy (MSA), a debilitating condition that causes her to lose consciousness every time she’s in an upright position.
MSA is similar to Parkinson’s disease. It affects the body’s involuntary processes, including movement.
The groundbreaking electronic device works by reactivating specific neurons that prevent her blood pressure dropping too low. It had already been used to treat hypotension in tetraplegics. Now the system has been applied to neurodegenerative disease, substantially improving her quality of life.
Project leader Professor Jocelyne Bloch, of Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland, says the breakthrough paves the way for important advances. “We’ve already seen how this type of therapy can be applied to patients with a spinal-cord injury,” she explains in a statement. “But now, we can explore applications in treating deficiencies resulting from neurodegeneration. This is the first time we’ve been able to improve blood-pressure regulation in people suffering from MSA.”
The implant enabled the 48-year-old to stand up and walk up to 250 meters.
MSA afflicts the sympathetic nervous system which connects organs to the brain via the spine. It leads to the loss of neurons that regulate blood pressure, which tends to drop dramatically as soon as patients stand up. The problem is known as orthostatic hypotension, and in some cases causes patients to faint.
This makes them more likely to fall, limits their ability to stand and walk around, and can eventually shorten life expectancy. Patients’ quality of life is reduced considerably since they must remain in a reclined position to avoid passing out.
The implant includes electrodes connected to an electrical-impulse generator that’s commonly used to treat chronic pain. After implanting the device surgically on her spinal cord, the scientists found an improvement in the body’s capacity to regulate blood pressure. She was able to remain conscious for longer periods in an upright position and to begin physical therapy to walk again.
“This technology was initially intended for pain relief – not for this kind of application,” says co-author Gregoire Courtine, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. “Going forward, we and our company Onward Medical plan to develop a system targeted specifically to orthostatic hypotension that can help people around the world struggling with this disorder.”
The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Report by South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn