A team of scientists from University of Louisville, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology announced that it has achieved a significant breakthrough after thirty years of researching clinical treatment for paralysis that utilizes a new “electrode” device that stimulates muscle movement.
After being struck down by a hit-and-run driver in 2006, Rob Summers was completely paralyzed below the neck.Today, due to this research in electrode therapy, Summers can use his leg muscle to push himself into a standing position, remain standing and bearing weight, for up to four minutes at a time (and for up to an hour with periodic assistance when he weakens). With a therapist’s assistance, and aided by a harness support system, Summers can also make repeated stepping motions on a treadmill. He can move his toes, ankles, knees and hips on command.
See, our brain triggers signals when we want to physically move our bodies. In the case of severe spinal cord injuries, these signals from the brain are completely cut off. By utilizing what researchers term “epidural electrical stimulation” of the lower spinal cord, an “array” of electrodes are implanted into the lower back, stimulating movement, and mimicking the brain’s own organic signals.
The work is such an advance, researchers are saying, showing that electrical stimulation can unlock the spinal cord’s ability to control movement. Similar positive findings have also been discovered in animal subjects.
The powerful results were recently published in British medical journal The Lancet, and the entire therapeutic process, used in conjunction with the electrode array, is called Locomotor Training. (The FDA has currently only approved electrode array implants for extreme lower back pain, at this point.)
To quote from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s website, one of the four organizations which funded this ground-breaking research: “These unprecedented results were achieved through continual direct epidural electrical stimulation of the subject’s lower spinal cord, mimicking signals the brain normally transmits to initiate movement. Once that signal is given, the research shows, the spinal cord’s own neural network, combined with the sensory input derived from the legs to the spinal cord, is able to direct the muscle and joint movements required to stand and step, with assistance on a treadmill.”
This electrode device is still in the experimental stages. (Summers is presently the sole volunteer, with six new research volunteers signed up for the next round.) More research will have to prove and see if the Locomotor Training would work with people with different kinds of spinal injuries.
“It’s been thought that the brain controls all our movement,” said Dr. Susan Harkema, research director at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center in Louisville, according to the foundation. “But the spinal cord is the primary controller. This is a breakthrough, but we have a long road ahead.”
Imagine the eventual possibilities of paraplegics being able to actually walk one day, with the help of this groundbreaking new research. In addition, the implanted electrode device does not seem much more complex than what can be found in the average, everyday pacemaker. “This procedure has completely changed my life,” research volunteer Rob Summers also told the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. “For someone who for four years was unable to even move a toe, to have the freedom and ability to stand on my own is the most amazing feeling. To be able to pick up my foot and step down again was unbelievable, but beyond all of that my sense of well-being has changed. My physique and muscle tone have improved greatly, so much that most people don’t even believe I am paralyzed. I believe that epidural stimulation will get me out of this chair.”
Five more people have since been enrolled in this exciting new study. “Today’s announcement clearly demonstrates proof of concept,” said Susan Howley, Executive Vice President for Research at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, noting that Summers was also in excellent physical condition prior to his accident. “It’s an exciting development. Where it leads to from here is fundamentally a matter of time, and money.”
Photo credit: Rob Summers