Implanted device gives hope to people who were told they would never stand on two legs.
Paralysis is something that people subject to terrible injuries have to learn to live with, but a new treatment that stimulates the spinal cord could provide new hope. Described in the research journal Brain, there are already examples of people who have regained function in their legs, knees, ankles and trunk thanks to the researchers at University of Louisville, UCLA and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology.
When the stimulator, a device implanted over the spinal cord, is turned on, it mimics signals that the brain usually sends to the spinal cord. With the proper training, patients such as Rob Summers, who was hit by a car in his own driveway and paralyzed from the neck down, have been able to regain movement. Over time, patients can also perform the same movements with less stimulation, which is a promising sign.
Even though the strength of movements, and number of repetitions varies across the participants, the fact that all four of them have responded to the treatment suggests it would work for anyone. There are also other positive effects from the implant, such as improved heart function, bladder control, circulation, sexual function and increased bone density.
Dr. Susan Harkema, director at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center (KSCIRC), says the technology also has a lot of room for improvement. The interface is slow, the control algorithm needs to be changed occasionally, and if you want to change configuration (move a different body part), the device needs to be turned off and on again.
As with any great technological innovation, the first prototype is rarely a vision of perfection, but the point to remember is that people who were told they would never move their legs again, now have renewed hope.
“One of the big take-home messages is that our preconceived notions that people with severe paralysis have no hope of recovery needs to be scrutinized and looked at and challenged,” says Harkema. “We purposely took individuals that by all clinical and scientific measures would be considered having no hope of being able to move or stand or change their neurological health status, especially after so many years of injury. This tells us that it’s the most severely injured who need the most intense rehab.”