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How a breakthrough therapy helped paralyzed men move again

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Paralyzed young men move again thanks to breakthrough therapy.

Research partially funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and the National Institutes of Health has helped four men who have been paralyzed for years move their legs. The therapy that is considered a breakthrough involves an epidural stimulator that scientists say mimics brain signals that control voluntary movement to help limb movement that would otherwise be impossible from paralysis.

Four men considered to have complete spinal cord injury took part in the study. Scientists report the epidural stimulator worked so well that the second, third and fourth young men were able to move their legs immediately after the device was placed into the lower part of their spinal cord.

"Two of the four subjects were diagnosed as motor and sensory complete injured with no chance of recovery at all," said lead author Claudia Angeli, a senior researcher with the Human Locomotor Research Center at Frazier Rehab Institute and an assistant professor at University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center (KSCIRC).

The four men are now able to move their hips, ankles and toes. Angeli added the success of the stimulator means a different way at looking at spinal cord injuries that indicates "great potential for functional recovery," which challenges the notion that once a person is paralyzed they can never move again.

How it works

The epidural stimulator delivers impulses to different places in the lumbar or lower back area with varying intensity and frequency according to the researchers.

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The placement and electricity corresponds with different areas that are responsible for moving the hips and lower extremities. The effect allows the nerves to become re-engaged to control movement.

Susan Harkema, a University of Louisville professor and rehabilitation research director at KSCIRC, Frazier Rehab Institute, director of the Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network said recovery can occur even years after spinal cord injury thanks to the new therapy. Men in the study also regained muscle mass in addition to overall improvement in health and general well-being.

Rob Summers, one of the young in the study was paralyzed in 2006. With training that makes the intervention even more successful, Summers became eligible to be a part of the study. Three days after the epidural implant he was able to stand for the first time since his spinal cord injury that happened from being struck by a car.

Six million people in the US are living with paralysis. The new therapy could bring hope to millions of others with spinal cord injury the researchers say.

Reggie Edgerton and Yury Gerasimenko, professor and director of the laboratory of movement physiology at Russia's Pavlov Institute in St. Petersburg and a researcher in the UCLA Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology said the study results are a "wake up call" to the medical community to change the way motor complete spinal cord injury is viewed.

Two of the men in the study were not only paralyzed. They also had complete loss of sensation and lack of awareness below their injury site. The researchers were surprised that all four men recovered their ability to move. Edgerton said nerves don't have to regrow to help paralyzed people move. He believes some of the pathways for movement must still be intact after spinal cord injury, accounting for the success of the epidural stimulator.

The hope is that with improvements in the stimulator, paralyzed individuals might be able to stand, maintain balance and work toward taking steps. The researchers say the spinal cord is much like the brain and can be retrained by repeatedly sending sensory signals. There may some day be a cure paralysis caused by spinal cord injury.

Image of Kent Stephenson courtesy Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation