Grégoire Courtine, the Frenchman who makes paraplegics walk again [OPINION]

It is a miracle worthy of the gospels: three men who couldn't move or even feel their legs are able to walk again.

These paraplegic patients can move via an implant made up of around fifteen electrodes that electrically stimulate several areas of their spinal cord. But here, it is not a question of miracle, but of science: the French neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine is at the origin of this revolution which could change the life of many paralytics, with the team which he leads alongside the Swiss surgeon Jocelyne Bloch.

His approach is revolutionary: restore communication between the brain and the spinal cord by means of an electronic "bridge" which, once implanted, could cause the nerves to rebuild and restore motor skills in the legs. This medical success did not fall from the sky: it is the fruit of ten years of research. It was in 2012 that the idea was born of using an electric current to recreate movements that had become impossible due to a spinal cord injury. The work of Burgundian Grégoire Courtine then showed that a paralyzed rat was able to walk again. In 2017, the first patient was operated.

Next step for this entrepreneurial Rolex Prize winner: carry out a clinical trial on three patients who have been paralyzed for about a year, with the aim of better understanding the links between brain signals and spinal cord stimulation. “Movement has always been very important to me because I love sports, explains Grégoire Courtine, who is also passionate about rock climbing and extreme sports. This is what prompted me to study how the brain controls movement. » He was inspired by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation in the United States, but it was above all the meeting in Zurich with a young man who had lost the use of his legs that played a triggering role. “I really identified with him, because I was the same age and the same passion for the sport. It was heartbreaking to see him lose something that I considered so important. » It was there that he decided to dedicate his scientific career to finding a solution for people suffering from spinal injuries.

This year, operated patients were able to take much more than a few steps: after five months of rehabilitation, one of the patients was able to walk for one kilometre!Longer and larger electrodes than previously used allow access to more muscles. In addition, thanks to software using artificial intelligence, the electrical impulses this time are much more precise and correspond better to each movement. A company called Onward has raised funds via an impressive IPO and is working to commercialize the mobility restoration technology developed by the two researchers and their team. A few more years, and this progress will certainly benefit the greatest number. Seven million people worldwide suffer from spinal cord injuries. Including 650 in Europe and the United States. For now, this electrical stimulation is still temporary, maintaining it permanently would exhaust the patient's body. Likewise, once extinguished, it has no lasting effect. But being able to have recourse to it, if only for a few hours a day, has already transformed the daily life of the first patients operated on.

source: Le Monde

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