A few days ago I watched, amazed, a video of a man paralysed from the waist down going for a walk outdoors.
Using a frame as support, he was able to move under his own steam thanks to an electrical device surgically implanted in his spine.
The patient, a 29-year-old Italian called Michel Roccati, had been badly injured in a motorcycle accident in 2017, but work by researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne meant he could now walk, using a computer tablet wirelessly linked to the implant to stimulate the nerve cells — neurons — in his spinal cord.
‘The first few steps were incredible — a dream come true!’ he said. ‘I’ve been through some pretty intense training in the past few months, and I’ve set myself a series of goals.
Using a frame as support, he was able to move under his own steam thanks to an electrical device surgically implanted in his spine
‘For instance, I can now go up and down stairs, and I hope to be able to walk one kilometre by this spring.’
This ‘medical miracle’ is the culmination of research on implants that were originally developed over 30 years ago to block pain signals travelling down the spine. In fact, this treatment is offered on the NHS to patients in chronic pain who have tried other approaches.
More recently, researchers around the world began to wonder if these implants could be modified so that rather than block nerve messages, they stimulated them, to help patients with broken spinal cords regain movement.
A few years ago I did a TV series where we looked at pioneering spinal stimulation work being carried out at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
The patient was a 26-year-old Texan called Kent who, like Michel, had broken his back in a motorbike accident and who was totally paralysed below the chest.
A team, led by Dr Susan Harkema from the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, had implanted a device into his spine, just below the injury. I had assumed that once the spinal cord has been broken, the nerves below the break would gradually wither away.
So it was stunning to see how much difference the implant made. By stimulating the remaining nerves they had made them more excitable and more responsive to the faint messages still getting through from the brain.
It gave Kent back his bowel and bladder control, and also meant that he could stand, unaided, and even move his legs. Now two Swiss neuro scientists, Grégoire Courtine and Jocelyne Bloch, have taken this research a step further, developing larger implants that use artificial intelligence to ensure much more precise control over the neurons that control the leg muscles.
They put their specially designed implants into three patients (one of them Michel Roccati), all of whom had very serious spinal injuries, and within a day of having their implants activated, all three were, says Dr Courtine, ‘able to stand, walk, pedal and swim.’
Within a few months they were also able to take part in social activities, such as having a drink while standing at a bar.
This is still very early days but the company, Onward Medical, who are commercialising this research, tell me that they are now planning bigger trials, which will hopefully involve British patients, later this year.
I’ll be following future developments with keen interest and hope to bring you an update soon.
What is the right amount of sleep for a healthy brain? You might think more is better, but a study from the University of Oslo in Norway — based on brain scans — suggests that on average you need just 6.8 hours. The researchers found that people with the biggest hippocampus (the area of the brain vital for memory) were among the shortest sleepers, getting on average just 6.2 hours. That’s reassuring for people like me who struggle to get the recommended 7-8 hours a night.
Don’t panic! Eating veg really IS good for you
‘Eating plenty of veg may NOT help ward off heart disease’ was the surprising claim this week from researchers at Oxford University, who found that people who ate lots of cooked veg weren’t any better off than veg dodgers.
This so flies in the face of previous research I looked at the study to find out more. The first thing to say is that it was an impressively large study, involving nearly 400,000 volunteers from the UK Biobank, a huge research project which, since 2006, has been helping answer a host of important health questions.
In the new study, researchers analysed food questionnaires these people had filled in at the beginning of the study, and then tracked down what had happened to them 12 years later.
As well as finding that eating lots of cooked veg didn’t seem to improve heart health, the analysis showed that while people who ate lots of raw vegetables were less likely to die from heart disease, this was largely due to other factors, such as income or lifestyle. So it wasn’t the raw veg that made the difference but the fact that they tended to be wealthier and more health conscious.
But how do you explain these findings about cooked veg? Tom Sanders, who is Professor Emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College, London, thinks this may be a case of ‘reverse causality’ — where ‘the group consuming the highest levels of vegetables were more likely to be receiving medication for high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure’. In other words the ‘high veg group’ included people already at higher risk of heart disease and who were eating more veg in the hope of preventing a heart attack. If so, it’s not surprising they showed little benefit.
And while the research didn’t show any heart benefits, those who ate the most veg had the lowest risk of dying prematurely from any cause — possibly because eating veg protects against diseases such as cancer.
We know veg contains lots of nutrients and fibre, which are good for our overall health and our gut bacteria.
So I’ll go on happily piling my plate with almost any veg, except Brussels sprouts.
What makes some people more attractive than others? This was the subject of a series I did with John Cleese and Liz Hurley.
Some researchers suggested it’s about having more symmetrical features, which in turn is a reflection of how healthy you are; others thought it’s more to do with the strength of the other person’s immune system, which we can, apparently, unconsciously detect.
Support for that theory comes from a recent U.S. study, where young adults underwent blood tests and photos of them were rated for attractiveness. Lo and behold, those considered more attractive also had the healthiest immune system. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective as mating with them would be likely to produce healthier offspring.
People looking for love might want to update their dating profile to include: ‘I have high levels of natural killer cells’.