Science

Breaking new ground in electrical limb stimulation in paralysed patients

A pilot study has had an encouraging outcome for many paraplegics who may suffer even complete paralysis; direct electrical stimulation of the spinal cord has reawakened limb movement in four study participants, providing hope for millions.

‘We can now envision a day when epidural stimulation might be part of a cocktail of therapies used to treat paralysis’, said Susan Howley of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, a major funder of the work.

Published in the journal Brain and lead by an international team of researchers, the paper details the impact of epidural stimulation on four patients, the key finding that all study participants were able to perform voluntary leg movements after implantation and activation of the stimulator.

This medical advance has been years in the making, following hundreds of animal experiments on injured rats. In similar research performed around the world in 2011, first study participant Rob Summers received the epidural stimulator implant and is now able to stand again as a direct result. He was previously completely paralysed from the chest down after a car accident in 2006. Not only is he now able to stand, his general health has improved vastly, as well as his quality of life, bladder function and sexual function.

As Rob Summers had a degree of sensation in his limbs, the research group was eager to study the response of patients diagnosed with complete motor paralysis. All three participants in the latest study had been previously paralyzed for two years with varying degrees of sensation and after treatment all were able to move limbs voluntarily.

The medical community, regarding spinal injury patients, often assume that two years after a spinal cord injury is the point of no return; if function has not been regained by this point, there is little hope. This study however, proves promising, as all participants in this study were past this point of recovery and researchers speculate that some pathways may be intact post injury that can redirect electrical impulses.

V. Reggie Anderson of UCLA, study lead, explained how exciting these results were for many paraplegic patients: ‘This is a wake-up call for how we see motor complete spinal cord injury. We don’t have to necessarily rely on regrowth of nerves in order to regain function. The fact that we’ve observed this in four out of four people suggests that this is actually a common phenomenon in those diagnosed with complete paralysis.’

Kent Stephenson, a study participant who suffered complete paralysis after suffering spinal cord injury in a hit-and-run, commented on his newly acquired ability to support his full weight for periods of time: ‘Everything’s impossible until somebody does it.’

Shanna Hamilton

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