A groundbreaking procedure, involving placing an electrical device into the spine, could help people suffering from paralysis to walk again. Scientists working at the University of Louisville, UCLA, in collaboration with the Pavlov Institute of Physiology, have been working on the epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. In a study, funded partly by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, four participants classed with a chronic motor complete spinal cord injury were able to move their arms and legs after an epidural stimulator was implanted into the spinal region. The device allowed the men to voluntarily move their legs for the first time since their paralysis.
The study, which has been published in the medical journal Brain, follows on from recent research carried out on the first participant Rob Summers. The subsequent trials were conducted on three other men, and included new tests on Summers. All the men involved in the study had been paralyzed from below the neck or chest for two years from a spinal cord injury. The study suggested that, as participants were able to move their arms and legs after the spinal device was implanted, some neural connections could be intact after trauma.
Lead author of the study, Claudia Angeli, said that in her opinion, the spinal implant was able to stimulate the spinal cord to sending simple messages to the brain, through pathways that was previously considered to be shut down after injury.
One participant, 29-year-old Dustin Shillcox, 29, was paralyzed after a car accident in 2010. In the study, an epidural stimulator was implanted into his lower back region and after five days he was able to move his toes and feet. Shillcox said: “It was very exciting and emotional. It brought me a lot of hope. The future is very exciting for people with spinal cord injuries.” Now he practices moving his legs in sessions for an hour a day, sometimes in a Superman tee-shirt for added inspiration and in a nod to the actor Christopher Reeve, who was himself paralyzed after a horse riding accident.
Angeli is keen to point out that the spinal implant is not a cure, and in the current stage of the study, the participants are only able to move their legs, toes and arms and for brief periods stand up, they cannot yet walk. She said: “Two of the four subjects were diagnosed as motor and sensory complete injured with no chance of recovery at all. Because of epidural stimulation, they can now voluntarily move their hips, ankles and toes. This is groundbreaking for the entire field and offers a new outlook that the spinal cord, even after a severe injury, has great potential for functional recovery.”
The way the electrical device works is by mimicking the signals the brain would normally send to initiate movement. The triggered signals would enable the spinal cord to reconnect with the damaged neural network and start to direct movement again. And when these devices were used in conjunction with extensive physiotherapy, the effects were even more pronounced.
The new spinal device gives hope to millions of people who are paralyzed, and thought that they would never be able to move again.