In results that even study authors describe as "surprising," electrical stimulation of the spinal cord accompanied by a home exercise program has helped 4 people with paraplegia regain movement in muscles that had been paralyzed for more than 2 years. The technique, which uses a 16-electrode array implanted on the spinal cord, allowed all 4 patients to regain some voluntary control of previously paralyzed muscles within days of the start of stimulation. The study quickly received coverage from media outlets such as CNN and the Los Angeles Times.
The report, published in the journal Brain, follows up a pilot trial of 1 patient that began in 2009. In that pilot, patient Rob Summers was implanted with the electrodes and engaged in intensive physical therapy using a harness suspended over a treadmill. According to a press release from the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the study, "with his stimulator active Summers was able to gradually bear his own weight and could eventually stand without assistance from physical therapists for up to 4 minutes." In addition, other related impairments improved over time absent the stimulation, including bladder control and sexual function.
The follow-up study focused on 3 patients, 2 of whom have complete sensory and motor paralysis, and 1 who, like Summers, has complete paralysis but some sensation below the injury. With the stimulator active, all 3 patients were able to engage in some level of voluntary movement in response to auditory cues. Researchers posted a brief video of 1 patient moving his legs and feet voluntarily.
While by no means a return to full function, the ability to engage in voluntary movement of any kind was exciting news for the researchers, who wrote that "We have uncovered a fundamentally new intervention strategy that can dramatically affect recovery of voluntary movement in individuals with complete paralysis even years after injury."
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