Wearing a robotic harness, paralyzed rats have been made to walk again, according to a new studyâ€”albeit with an oddly upright, humanlike gait and while stimulated by judicious jolts of electricity and chemicals.
It’s the first time severely injured spinal cords have been reawakened, say researchers, who add that the technique might hold some promise for disabled people.
First, neuroscientist GrÃ©goire Courtine and his team severed the spines of 27 rats, leaving some tissue intact but no direct nerve connectionsâ€”and therefore no way for the animals to control their hind legs.
A week later the researchers put 17 of the rats on a sort of physical therapy regimen and began administering chemical injections and electric stimulation directly to the rodents’ spinal cords. The remaining ten rats, used as a control group, received no treatment.
The physical training began on a treadmill, with the 17 rats using a robotic harnessâ€”created especially for the studyâ€”that suspended the animals upright but did not propel them forward.
“Imagine you can’t get any signals from your brain to below the injuryâ€”you can still walk on a treadmill,” said Kleitman, who wasn’t part of the new study.