A pioneering new technique which uses electrical implants in the spines of paralyzed patients can help them move their legs again—and could soon allow them to walk once more, too.

The new research, part of a study by scientists at the University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, saw four wheelchair-bound men—who were completely paralysed below the waist—fitted with an array of electrodes in the lumbosacral region of the spinal cord. That's the main processing unit which links the brain to the spinal cord and it was hoped that by correctly stimulating it the patient's' legs could be made to move once more.

It worked. Now, all four patients can move their legs and toes, and some can even lift up to 100 kilograms with their legs. The research is published in Brain. New Scientist explains how it works:

[T]he implant restores what in healthy people would be the resting potential of the spinal cord, the baseline electrical activity that keeps the cord alert, but which wanes through lack of use in people who are paralysed... Once this background electrical impetus is restored artificially, the cord reawakens and can register the brain's "intent" to move from the brain and convert this into fine movement at the motor neuron level. And by modulating the voltage for each individual and for each task, algorithms that optimise delivery of electrical activity for specific movement can be worked out and applied at will by the patients.

As you'll see when you watch the video, above, the co-ordination isn't there for these patients to walk yet—but that's the next step for the researchers. They hope that increasing the number of electrodes—from 16 to 27—will make the control more fine-grained, and help them walk again. The researchers are currently testing the new devices in animals.

Leg movement isn't the only upside, though. All the patients have reported that, to varying degrees, they've regained recovered bladder, bowel and sexual function. In other words, this thing totally changes lives; let's hope it's widely available soon. [Brain via New Scientist]