In what is being called a “breakthrough,” a new procedure involving electrodes placed near a patient’s spine has been nothing short of a miracle for four men who have been paralyzed long-term for more than two years. This technology has allowed them, for the first time, to regain voluntary use of their legs.
A team of researchers at the University of Louisville and the University of California at Los Angeles released their findings on April 8, 2014, detailing a new procedure during which electrodes are strategically placed to stimulate the patient’s spinal cord while performing specific tasks that test the motor functions of the paralyzed limbs. The four study patients, all of whom lost their mobility due to injury, were then able to will their limbs into limited motion.
The study is paradigm-shifting in that, up until now, common wisdom set two years after an accident as a hard limit on regaining the use of limbs. It was believed that if a patient had not regained mobility within the first few months of an accident, it was less and less likely it would ever happen, and if mobility hadn’t been regained by the two-year mark, there was little hope of it ever coming back.
This new procedure, however, demonstrates a different conclusion. Dr. Roderic Pettigrew of the National Institute on Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, says, “A large cohort of individuals, previously with little realistic hope of any meaningful recovery from spinal cord injury, may benefit from this intervention.”
An array of electrodes is surgically implanted just below the patient’s injury. As the patient practices voluntary movement, a current of electric energy is delivered to the spinal cord. UCLA researcher V. Reggie Edgerton says, “With the impetus of a jolt of electricity and the patient filling in some sensory and perceptual information, the brain may enlist local motor circuits or find a way through some usually dormant signaling path to initiate movement.”
This trial’s success has broad and far-reaching implications, even suggesting that patients who have suffered severed spinal cord injuries can, with help from a jolt of electricity, regain some mobility from the motor command center of the brain. Susan Howley of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation says, “We can now envision a day when epidural stimulation might be part of a cocktail of therapies used to treat paralysis.”
Thus far, four paraplegics have taken part in the program. All have been paralyzed beyond the two-year limit, and all have regained some means of mobility through the surgical implantation of a network of electrodes which help to deliver electrical signals through the spinal cord. The fact that paraplegic patients learned to flex previously immobilized knees, toes, and ankles (even in patients with a severed spinal cord) implies that voluntary movement may not need signals from the motor command center of the brain.
The study is still in its preliminary stages, and researchers still aren’t certain whether it’s cumulative levels of electrical stimulation, practice using the limbs, or a combination of both that is primarily responsible for the success, but the repeat success through four patients demonstrates clearly that the earliest test subject, Rob Summers, who we featured in the AMS Vans’ blog in 2011, was not anomalous in regaining his ability to use his limbs. Watch the video to learn more about the procedure.