UCL News


Walking again: girl with a rewired brain

5 March 2006

A young woman confined to a wheelchair for seven years is not just walking again but singing and dancing in amateur shows, after a "miracle" cure using electrical implants in the brain.

Amy Westall, 20, is the most dramatic example of the experimental treatment developed by doctors to tackle Parkinson's disease, depression and even paralysis.

The "rewiring" of the brain involves guiding electrodes to areas known to govern specific functions. A small current is delivered from a battery implanted beneath the collar bone and connected by wires to the electrodes in the brain itself.

Westall …  suffered from a genetic form of a condition called dystonia, in which fierce, uncontrollable muscle spasms force victims into painful contortions, making walking impossible.

She underwent a lengthy experimental procedure by Marwan Hariz, professor of functional neurosurgery at the [UCL] Institute of Neurology in London. Tiny filaments, thinner than a human hair, were implanted in her brain to carry electrical current that would interrupt the signals sending her muscles into spasm. They produced miraculous results. …

"It is hard to find words for how much it has changed my life," said Westall. "I spent seven years of my life in a wheelchair before the operation. Now I'm not only walking, I'm singing and dancing in amateur shows." …

 "We have a technology here that is sensational and very important," said Hariz. "It is not new - it has been around for 10 or 15 years for Parkinson's but it is only now being developed."

Patients and other doctors have been wary of the technique because of brain surgery's association with lobotomies, now discredited as crude and dangerous. However, pioneers of brain implants point out that the effect is reversible because the devices can simply be switched off. …

Hariz and his colleagues now believe depression is likely to be the next major disorder where large numbers of patients could benefit from the technology.

Lois Rogers, 'The Sunday Times', 5 March 2006