Researchers found a way to trick the brains of several paraplegic patients into thinking they were walking, with the help of virtual reality headgear. Miraculously, all patients from the study developed some extent of voluntary leg movement after twelve months of therapy in a world´s first.

Many attempts have been made in the past to provoke voluntary muscle control in patients with spinal cord injuries, using weight support systems and robotic assistance. Such endeavours unfortunately resulted in little or no success, clouding the future of these once promising techniques. However, in a surprising turn of events, it seems they were most likely just missing one crucial component – the so-called brain-machine interface (BMI).

Eight paraplegic patients were enrolled in a 12-month intensive rehabilitation study that utilized brain stimulation using virtual reality headsets, along with a custom-designed exoskeleton. In addition to all patients developing at least some degree of voluntary lower limb movement, some also regained control of their bladder and bowel routines for the first time in many years. As described by the lead researcher Dr. Miguel Nicolelis this feat “is very important for the patients´ quality of life”.

The treatment proved so beneficial, that 50% of the patients got reclassified as only partially paralyzed. The current speculation behind the method´s success predicts that extensive virtual walking actually restarted the communication between the patients´ surviving nerves and the muscle receptors in their legs. The research team´s incredible breakthrough even scored them a publication in Nature.

Watch the video bellow to find out more about this incredible leap forward:


By Luka Zupančič, MSc, University of Applied Sciences Technikum Vienna