I am not a neurologist or a neuro-surgeon but as a Feldenkrais practitioner, I am intimately familiar with what is known as neuro-plasticity. What strikes me about this story from the BBC, about spinal implants, is what surprises the doctors involved.
To summarise the story; doctors in Switzerland have managed to put an electrical implant into a patient's spinal chord. He has been paralysed below the waist for several years after a sports injury.
The implant can only be switched on for a few minutes at a time because it is painful. But the wonderful news for the patient is that the electrical simulation is giving him back the ability to walk. It is a slow and probably extremely expensive process but it is giving a life of movement back to a person. I'm not arguing with that. ( Well not here anyway)
What I am interested in is the reactions of the doctors.
In this electrical stimulation the damaged area of the spinal chord is somehow "bridged" allowing signals from the brain to reach the lower parts and legs and feet to enable walking. The thing that is surprising everyone apparently is that it is NOT ONLY the electrical stimulation that is helping but the actual movement of the legs that is "retrospectively" re-creating the conditions needed for connection between the brain and the legs. Put another way it is the movement of the legs that is actually preparing the neural pathways across the "broken" part of the spinal column.
It is amazing that this should be such a surprise to the doctors. Really. I say this because it is a clear example of what is now known as neuroplasticity. Moshe Feldenrkrais really was ahead of his time. I am realising this more, the more I practice. In Functional Integration, the hands-on version of the Feldenkrais Method, the practitioner moves the peripheral parts of the person (lets say the legs and feet) with great care, knowledge and sensitivity, to stimulate what has been lost in the brain (or the motor cortex, the part that organises movement). Therefore, I have not the skill or the money to do these wonderful experiments with paralysed people that they are dong in Switzerland, but I am not surprised that a damaged spinal column can regrow. Its what we do, in a way, everyday in the Feldenkrais Method; rebuilding nervous connections from brain to body and body to brain.
It is still apparently counter-intuitive to think that you can work "backwards" for recovery of brain function, but the great Moshe Feldenkrais was doing this with sufferers of all sorts of brain impairment 70 years ago. There is a lovely quote in the article from the recovering man when he says that he is "attempting the impossible to make the possible possible"; it reminds of me of a great quote from Feldenkrais where he talks about making the "impossible possible and the possible beautiful". I am sure the man recovering in Switzerland would understand it.