Brain implants allow paralyzed monkeys to walk

For more than a decade, neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine has been flying every few months from his lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne to another lab in Beijing, China, where he conducts research on monkeys with the aim of treating spinal-cord injuries.

Swiss researchers travel to China to conduct pioneering experiment.

The commute is exhausting — on occasion he has even flown to Beijing, done experiments, and returned the same night. But it is worth it, says Courtine, because working with monkeys in China is less burdened by regulation than it is in Europe and the United States. And this week, he and his team report1 the results of experiments in Beijing, in which a wireless brain implant — that stimulates electrodes in the leg by recreating signals recorded from the brain — has enabled monkeys with spinal-cord injuries to walk. 

“They have demonstrated that the animals can regain not only coordinated but also weight-bearing function, which is important for locomotion. This is great work,” says Gaurav Sharma, a neuroscientist who has worked on restoring arm movement in paralyzed patients, at the non-profit research organization Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

The treatment is a potential boon for immobile patients: Courtine has already started a trial in Switzerland, using a pared-down version of the technology in two people with spinal-cord injury.

“This study helps to open exciting new pathways to clinical studies and new bioelectronic treatment options for patients living with paralysis,” says bioengineer Chad Bouton, who researches medical devices used to bypass spinal-cord injuries at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.

From rats to primates

The experiments are more of a progression than a sudden breakthrough: they are based on a decade of work in rats, Courtine says, and the monkeys reacted in very similar ways. The team first mapped how electric signals are sent from the brain to leg muscles in healthy monkeys, walking on a treadmill. They also examined the lower spine, where electric signals from the brain arrive before being transmitted to muscles in the legs. Then they recreated those signals in monkeys with severed spinal cords, focusing on particular key points in the lower part of the spine.

Microelectrode arrays implanted in the brain of the paralyzed monkeys picked up and decoded the signals that had earlier been associated with leg movement. Those signals were sent wirelessly to devices that generate electric pulses in the lower spine, which triggered muscles in the monkeys’ legs into motion.

“The whole team was screaming in the room as we watched,” says Courtine, who has seen many failed experiments to restore walking ability. The rhythm of the leg movement was imperfect, but the monkeys’ feet were not dragging and the movement was coordinated enough to support the primates’ weight.