29-year-old Minnesotan Jered Chinnock, who has been paralyzed from the waist down for the past five years, stunned a team of Mayo Clinic doctors and researchers recently by walking the length of a football field with the aid of a groundbreaking, mind-controlled electrode implanted in his spine.
Once an avid outdoorsman, Chinnock suffered a devastating injury to the middle of his back in a 2013 snowmobile accident that left him with three spinal fractures. Doctors diagnosed him with a complete loss of function below his damaged vertebrae, meaning he was unable to walk, move, or feel sensation in his lower torso and legs. Then, in 2016, something happened that made him dare to hope again.
A team of Mayo Clinic doctors, led by neurosurgeon Dr. Kendall Lee, asked Chinnock to be the first person to join a revolutionary study aiming to expand on the results of an earlier experiment in Louisville. After an initial 22 weeks of gruelling physical therapy, the patient was implanted with an electrode that works by zapping the spinal cord, which stimulates the nerves and allows them to receive signals from the brain.
Chinnock says that what happened when his doctors turned the stimulator on “was almost mind-blowing. Right away I was able to move my toes”, he explains – a breakthrough that, until then, had been nothing but a distant dream for the last few years. Soon he was able to control his muscles while lying on his side and make step-like motions in the same position, as well as stand with partial support.
Currently, after undergoing 43 weeks of intensive rehabilitation, Chinnock is astounding doctors and the scientific world alike with his success. Able to use a treadmill on his own and step across the ground with a walker, his current record for distance travelled in one session is an incredible 102 meters. Such remarkable progress has never before been seen in patients with similar injuries.
To get to this point, researchers and doctors at the Mayo Clinic had to be creative and resourceful. Since Chinnock’s legs are still paralyzed and without sensation, he had to relearn how to keep his balance while walking. This was achieved by placing mirrors around a treadmill to help him better position himself and move his legs. Researchers have taken to describing this as “independent stepping”.
Moving forward, there’s still a lot to be learned. Not only do researchers need to determine exactly why Chinnock’s treatment was successful, but they also hope to improve it so that more people can benefit.
“Now I think the real challenge starts, and that’s understanding how this happened, why it happened, and which patients will respond,” says Dr. Kristin Zhao, co-author on the study and Director of Mayo Clinic’s Assistive and Restorative Technology Laboratory.
If the doctors can succeed at that, perhaps someday it’s possible that the prognoses for disabling injuries like Jered Chinnock’s will no longer be so bleak.