March 20, 2000 (Brussels, Belgium) -- An implanted computer chip has allowed a 39-year old financial consultant from France to take his first steps since a car crash left him paralyzed him from the waist down 10 years ago.
Marc Merger is the first patient to undergo the implant procedure, which was developed by a consortium of European researchers to help people who have lost the use of their legs.
Last December, surgeons implanted 15 electrodes on nerves and muscles in Merger's legs, connecting them with wires to the computer chip embedded in his abdomen. The procedure had to be repeated in February after problems arose.
Merger was able to stand up by himself in early March, and he took his first steps last Friday.
Professor Pierre Rabischong of Montpellier University in France, a project coordinator, said the implanted chip allows Merger to create artificial muscle movement.
"We are trying to reproduce what happens in the brain ... with electrodes to nerves and muscles," said Rabischong. "We are not working miracles here but allowing patients to stand up using their own muscles."
Previous electronic systems have allowed paralyzed people to stand and walk with a walker, sometimes for more than a mile, said Naomi Kleitman, director of education at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Those systems use electrodes taped on the skin.
"We are by no means at the end of the road. A lot of work is still required," Rabischong said.
On Monday, Merger was living proof of that. A demonstration of him walking, scheduled to take place at EU headquarters, had to be postponed because a glitch caused the commands to not be communicated to the computer chip, meaning Merger could not walk. Merger steps within a 'walking frame' that acts as a remote control for the chip.
Systems that implant computer-controlled electrodes have been tested in the lab for many years, said Kleitman. They may allow more sophisticated control over leg nerves and muscles, although there has been some problems with long-term maintenance of the implanted electrodes, she said.
Kleitman said she couldn't comment directly on the European system without knowing more details.
Eventually, scientists hope patients will be able to control their movements by pressing buttons on a walking cane now under development that will act as a remote control. For now, scientists transmit instructions to the chip via computer. The signals are transmitted to the electrodes in the legs and converted into muscle movement.
The European Union and six governments -- France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and the U.K. -- have been working on developing the technology since 1996.