Electrical stimulation in a spine

Breakthrough Treatment May Restore Movement in People with Parkinson's

There may be promise of restored movement for people with Parkinson’s who have received electrical implants in their spine. Canadian researchers have developed and tested spinal electrical stimulation that enables people with chronic Parkinson’s disease (PD) to walk more easily and independently.1 Leadership at Parkinson’s UK say there is substantial potential benefit from this treatment, but it should be noted that this research study is a pilot study and much more research is needed to understand if this treatment option will work with others who have PD.1,2,3,4

Trouble walking is a classic symptom of PD, and 25% of those with PD will experience freezing (uncontrolled interruption of movement) and falling as their disease progresses.3 Parkinson’s is classically defined as a chronic neurodegenerative movement disorder characterized by symptoms including resting tremor, limb stiffness, difficulty walking, and impaired balance. The disease affects each person differently, so not everyone has the same symptoms. There are a wide range of motor and non-motor symptoms that characterize Parkinson’s.

A new theory

The normal brain sends instructions when you want to walk that tell your legs to move. When each movement is completed, the brain receives a return signal indicating the fulfillment of the first action, before initiating the next step. According to Professor Mandar Jog of Western University and the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario, attributes of Parkinson’s reduce the strength of signals that return to the brain causing a break in the electrical signal which result in the freezing of limbs, causing changes in gait.1,2,3

This is a change in understanding of movement problems. Until now it was thought that the signals were not getting from the brain to the legs; the success of this new device suggests that the signals are active but degraded. They need a boost to improve functionality.

Electrical implants in the spine

The Canadian team has developed an implant that can enhance those signals, allowing information to be transmitted correctly, resulting in normal walking. This cutting edge implant stimulates the spine to boost signals.1,2,3 The new electrical stimulus works by enlivening the native feedback mechanism from the legs to the brain that has been damaged by PD.2

Brain scans were used to identify the areas that control movement.4 Prior to the electrical implant, scans showed relevant areas not working correctly. Months after the implant, however, scans showed those areas to be working properly, with functioning restored. In fact, benefits of the implant proved long-lasting. The feedback mechanism continued to work even after the implant had been turned off.1,2,3

Practical implications

People who have had Parkinson’s for years, decades even, who have impaired mobility may be able to walk independently again with this new treatment, although more research needs to be done. Reports from those who tested the stimulation treatment suggest that individuals have regained the ability to walk without freezing or falling, the confidence to go out shopping for the day, and a sense of independence. Others say they have resumed more active family participation, including the ability to go on vacations.1,2,3,4

What’s next?

This initial pilot of the Canadian device in the UK was conducted on a small scale, testing only five individuals with Parkinson's disease.1 According to the research manager at Parkinson’s UK, further investigation is needed to help to determine if the benefits of this therapy can help more people with Parkinson’s. The success of a therapy like this could improve quality of life for a significant portion of the Parkinson’s population who have become homebound or experience severe difficulty walking or falling.2,3 Future, more expansive investigation will evaluate if this method is successful in reducing or eliminating symptoms of a disease that currently has no cure. At this time, spinal electrical stimulation is not publicly available as more research is needed to test if this is a viable treatment option for those with Parkinson's.

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