London: An electronic device developed by scientists in Germany has enabled four paralysed people to walk again.
The device, made by German firm Ottobock, is designed for victims of stroke or brain damage whose nervous systems have been impaired.
A patient fitted with the device in July had recovered sufficiently to take part in the Torch relay through London earlier this week, a newspaper reported.
The woman, in her 20s, had suffered a brain injury in a road accident and could not walk. Now her life has been transformed by a technology that has been available on the Continent for several years.
“It is amazing to see patients who had a useless withered limb walking again almost normally,” Orthopaedic consultant Dr Michael Jauch, leading the programme, said.
“One of our first patients went back to work after many years off following a stroke. She had been unable to cope around the home let alone going to work. Now she has resumed her career,” Dr Michael Jauch stated.
Over five years, the device would cost the NHS about 20,000 pounds. This includes the initial two-hour keyhole operation, performed by a neurosurgeon, plus regular check-ups.
ActiGate is only available privately at one clinic at present, but the hope is that it will eventually become accessible to NHS patients.
Stroke patients and other brain damage victims are often unable to walk because nerve signals no longer reach their legs. By implanting an electronic stimulator into the upper thigh, signals are sent by a buried wire to muscles in the calf and foot.
A tiny computer on the waist sends radio signals via an external antenna to the stimulator. It then fires an electrical current to the calf muscles where an electrode is fitted.
The circuit is completed by a small switch worn in the user’s shoe, which makes sure the foot does not hit the ground too hard. It also lets the stimulator know when to deliver another shock to the calf muscles.
Patients control the nerve stimulation by adjusting the settings.
Patients are normally able to walk within a couple of weeks of surgery.
The implant is powered by a rechargeable external unit. The implant is expected to last at least 10 years while the external batteries on the control unit and foot switch need changing every two years.
Doctors believe ActiGait could also help patients with multiple sclerosis confined to wheelchairs.