For many paraplegics the road to recovery too often does not end with regained movement. Many paralyzed muscles remain that way despite decades of medical research. Now a new technique is showing promising results and has given several paraplegics voluntary movements once again.
A new study published today in the journal Brain has shown that a new technique of stimulating the spinal cord with electrical pulses could have the potential to restore movement to paraplegics. Researchers using the technique have now seen limited movement come back to patients who had been paralyzed for years.
The study took four paralyzed men and treated them at the University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center. Each of the men had been paralyzed for over two years. After receiving spinal stimulation therapy involving treatments and follow-up physical therapy, all four of the men were able to voluntarily flex their knees, ankles, and toes.
A video released today by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (which helped fund the study) shows the remarkable progress seen in two of the study participants:
“When we first learned that a patient had regained voluntary control as a result of spinal stimulation, we were cautiously optimistic,” said Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at the NIH. “Now that spinal stimulation has been successful in 4 out of 4 patients, there is evidence to suggest that a large cohort of individuals, previously with little realistic hope of any meaningful recovery from spinal cord injury, may benefit from this intervention.”
The spinal stimulation technique involves the implantation of electrode array in the spinal cord of patients. Within just days of beginning the therapy study participants demonstrated the ability to voluntarily control muscles that had previously been paralyzed.
The study's authors believe that this rapid recovery is evidence that the patients' bodies may have dormant spinal connections even though paralyzed. Two of the patients in the study had no sensation at all below their injuries prior to the treatment.
“The fact that the brain is able to take advantage of the few connections that may be remaining, and then process this complicated visual, auditory, and perceptual information, is pretty amazing," said V. Reggie Edgerton, the developer of the spinal stimulation technique and a professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA. "It tells us that the information from the brain is getting to the right place in the spinal cord, so that the person can control, with fairly impressive accuracy, the nature of the movement.”