Julie Hill, 37, has had an electronic implant in her spine that directly stimulates the 12 nerves controlling her leg muscles. She was paralysed in a car crash nine years ago but can now use a tricycle and other exercise equipment. Speaking at University College London, Mrs Hill commented: "I'm a lot fitter. I can do much more aerobic exercise. In fact I'm probably fitter than I've ever been in my life."
The scientists who developed the implants are looking for an engineer to build more of the devices, which could potentially help 3,000 paraplegics in Britain. Dr Nick Donaldson, of the university's implanted devices group, said: "The implant is about two inches in diameter and half an inch thick. It sits under the skin under the lower ribs, with wires to the lower spine. There it connects to the 12 nerves - six for each leg."
Electrical stimulation via a control box connected to the implant performs the same function as the body's own nerves, meaning that individual muscles in the legs can be moved and exercised. Feeding in different patterns of stimuli from the control box means that different sorts of activity - including walking and cycling - can be carried out.
Ms Hill was the first person in the world to receive the implant, although Dr Donaldson has been working on versions of this system, called Larsi - for Lumbar Arterial Root Stimulation Implant - since 1977.
Dr Donaldson said: "It was an eight-hour operation, of which about six hours was spent determining precisely which were the correct nerves to attach to."
Although the technology would not be suitable for every paraplegic, Dr Donaldson hopes to extend it to people including stroke and multiple sclerosis victims who have lost the use of their legs. At present only those with spinal cord fractures between the second and twelfth thoracic vertebrae are being considered for further trials.
"We're advertising for the engineer in the model-making press, because the important thing is being able to work with small items - the engineering side they can probably pick up," Dr Donaldson said. The engineer's salary will come out of a fund of more than pounds 200,000, which includes donations from the Grand Charity of Freemasons and the Augustus Newman Family Trust.
Mrs Hill hopes she can find further uses for Larsi. "I can already swim but it would be nice to have my legs kicking to help me move along. I think I'll always be a work in progress. But it has already made me a fitter, healthier person, which means I'll live longer. That's worth having," she said.Reuse content