Three people who were paralyzed for years have begun walking again after an implant was placed in their spines.
Father-of-one Jered Chinnock, 29, who has been paralyzed since 2013, became the first patient ever to take independent steps following such a devastating injury at the Mayo Clinic.
The electronic device ‘reconnects’ neurons in Chinnock’s legs with his brain. He just has to think about walking – or standing – and he does it.
Two other patients, 23-year-old Kelly Thomas and 35-year-old Jeff Marquis, achieved similar success during another study conducted at the University of Louisville.
Scientists previously believed that networks of neurons below a spinal cord injury were unable to function after someone was left paralyzed.
But the breakthrough, partly funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, could help millions out of their wheelchairs and train their bodies out of paralysis.
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Jered Chinnock, 29 (pictured with his wife Jennifer), from Tomah, Wisconsin, was left paralyzed after a snowmobile accident in February 2013
Chinnock (pictured with a snowmobile before his accident) was thrown from his machine and hit by another snowmobile traveling behind him. He had several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a spine that was fractured in three places
His spine was screwed back together, but the nerves that carry signals from the brain to the legs had been severed. Chinnock (in physical therapy at the Mayo Clinic) was unable to move anything below his mid-torso.
In February 2013, Chinnock was spending a day out on a frozen lake near his home with his then-wife Nicole, other family members and friends.
While the group was snowmobiling, Chinnock hit a bump and he was thrown from his machine – and hit by another snowmobile traveling behind him.
‘I just thought I got the wind knocked out of me and needed to catch my breath and released I couldn’t get up,’ he said.
The avid outdoorsman had several broken ribs, a punctured lung and a spine that was fractured in three places.
Surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, were able to screw Chinnock’s spine back together, but the nerves that carry signals from the brain to the legs had been severed.
He was unable to move anything below his mid-torso.
‘I was just pretty much set in my ways of going to be in my wheelchair the rest of my life,’ Chinnock said.
Kelly Thomas, of Homosassa, Florida, suffered her injury after a car accident in July 2014.
As she was driving, her truck veered off the shoulder of the road and, when she tried to correct it, the vehicle flipped.
Thomas hit her head on the roof, compressing her spine and leaving her paralyzed..
Marquis was a chef living in Whitefish, Montana, in 2011 when a mountain biking accident changed his life.
‘I was going down a trail that had a bunch of jumps that I normally skipped,’ Marquis, who currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, told NBC News.
‘That day, I hadn’t really decided whether I was going around them or I was going to try it for once. I went over it without jumping and I ended up breaking my neck.’
The research was partly funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The Superman actor was left paralyzed from the neck down after a horse-riding accident in May 1995. Pictured: Christopher and Dana Reeve in 1996
Doctors approached Chinnock with some research they were working on, which involved placing an an electrode just below his injured area. Pictured: Chinnock with his wife Jennifer and his son
The electrode would enable neurons in his legs to connect to his brain and help him move. It is switched on and off using a TV style remote control that can change the amount of voltage and even the precise location of stimulation. Pictured, left and right: Chinnock in physical therapy
However, scientists at the Mayo Clinic were working on research at the time that combined physical therapy with spinal cord stimulation to restore movement to people who have been paralyzed
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the University of California Los Angeles, the University of Louisville in Kentucky and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
The Superman actor was left paralyzed from the neck down after a horse-riding accident in May 1995 and passed away in 2004 from complications of his paralysis.
The pioneering technique involved 22 weeks of rigorous physical therapy for Chinnock that began in 2016.
He had to be hoisted onto a treadmill so his legs could be repeatedly moved by trainers to strengthen the wasted muscles.
Following this, he had an electrode placed just below his injured area with a wire connecting it to a pacemaker sized battery that was put in his stomach at the same time, just below the skin.
The system is switched on and off using a TV style remote control that can change the amount of voltage and even the precise location of stimulation – enabling it to boost either standing or walking.
Just two weeks after the surgery, Chinnock was able to make step-like movements while suspended in a harness and could stand on his own using his arms for balance and support.
Dr Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic whose team carried out the operation, said: ‘[Chinnock] was able to regain voluntary control of the movement in his legs. The patient’s own thoughts were able to drive this.
‘We were able to get him to stand independently and be able to take his own steps.’
Chinnock, who has a young son, is walking for the first time in more than five years. With the electrode turned on he managed to take steps on his own while helpers provided only occasional assistance.
When he simply thinks about standing or stepping, the implanted electrode enables neurons to receive the signals.
Kelly Thomas, 23 (center), of Homosassa, Florida, suffered her injury after a car accident in July 2014. She enrolled in the University of Louisville study in November 2016
Jeff Marquis, 35 (pictured), became paralyzed when he was 28 years old after a mountain biking accident in 2011 in Whitefish, Montana
Both Thomas and Marquis are now able to take steps on their own with the assistance of walkers or support bars. Pictured, left to right: Thomas, Dr Claudia Angelim, Marquis and Dr Susan Harkema
He can now walk for as long as 16 minutes and as far as 111 yards – almost the length of a football field, reports Nature Medicine.
Chinnock, a keen archer and fisherman, said at the time: ‘It was almost mind-blowing. Right away I was able to move my toes. It was a ‘pinch me, see-if-this-is-real kind of thing’.’
The researchers adjusted stimulation settings, level of trainer assistance, harness support and speed of the treadmill to allow him maximum independence.
When the implant was switched off, he remained paralyzed – showing his progress is due to the electrode, and not spontaneous.
Meanwhile, in Louisville, Thomas and Marquis signed up for the study at the University of Louisville and were enrolled in November 2016.
Thomas underwent the same training Chinnock did and, after months of walking on a treadmill and with trainers, she took her first steps on her own in February 2018.
‘The first day I took steps on my own was an emotional milestone in my recovery that I’ll never forget as one minute I was walking with the trainer’s assistance and, while they stopped, I continued walking on my own,’ she said in a press release.
Marquis was a paralyzed from the waist down and in some of his fingers as well. His rehabilitation took longer, a total of 85 weeks, before he started taking steps on his own.
‘The first steps after my mountain biking accident were such a surprise, and I am thrilled to have progressed by continuing to take more steps each day,’ he said in a press release.
‘In addition, my endurance has improved, as I’ve regained strength and the independence to do things I used to take for granted like cooking and cleaning.’
The researchers can stimulation settings, level of trainer assistance, harness support and speed of the treadmill to allow him maximum independence. Pictured: the electrode device and the pacemaker it is attached to
Just two weeks after the surgery, Chinnock (left and right) was able to make step-like movements while suspended in a harness and could stand on his own using his arms for balance and support. He can now walk for as long as 16 minutes and as far as 111 yards
Now, Chinnock (pictured) has learned to use his entire body to transfer weight, maintain balance and propel forward, requiring minimal verbal cues and just periodic glances at his legs
In the first week, Chinnock used a harness to lower his risk of falling and to provide upper body balance.
Trainers were positioned at his knees and hips to help him stand, swing his legs and shift his weight.
He did not regain sensation, so he initially used mirrors to view his legs, and trainers described leg position, movement and balance.
Within six months he did not need a harness, and trainers offered only occasional help.
Currently, as a safety precaution, the patient takes steps only under the supervision of the researchers.
‘He is not taking steps at home but he has been doing other movements, including sitting and side lying positions,’ said Dr Kristin Zhao, an associate professor at the Mayo Clinic.
‘Now I think the real challenge starts, and that’s understanding how this happened, why it happened, and which patients will respond.’
Now, at the end of the study period, Chinnock has learned to use his entire body to transfer weight, maintain balance and propel forward, requiring minimal verbal cues and just periodic glances at his legs.
‘What this is teaching us is that those networks of neurons below a spinal cord injury still can function after paralysis,’ said Dr Lee.
‘It gives hope to patients with paralysis that functional control may be possible.’
Dr Lee said a second patient is also undergoing the treatment but those results are not yet ready.
The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation released a statement to Daily Mail Online that read in part: ‘Not long ago, many naysayers believed that the spinal cord, once injured, could never be repaired or recover.
‘Thanks to researchers from UCLA, the Mayo Clinic, and the University of Louisville, we believe that spinal cord injury may no longer mean a lifetime of paralysis.
‘We have never been closer to delivering on Christopher Reeve’s dream of a world of empty wheelchairs, and the Reeve Foundation is eager to fast-track the next phase of epidural stimulation research so that many more individuals can reclaim functions once thought to be lost.’