A major breakthrough was reported in neuroscience research this week. Four paraplegic patients who participated in a study were able to voluntarily move their legs again after repeated epidural electrical stimulation of their spinal cords. The study was funded mainly by the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation, and the results were published today in the medical journal Brain.
The pioneering treatment simulates the signals that damaged nerves would expect to hear from the brain. The study is the continuation of a previous one conducted in 2011 which resulted in a patient Rob Summers being able to stand again. The three new patients in this most recent study had all suffered a complete spinal cord injury and were paralyzed for years. Yet they were able to move their legs immediately following the implantation and activation of the stimulator. In fact the recovery time was so brief that it has led researchers to speculate that some nerve pathways may remain intact even after injury.
Dr. Reggie Edgerton is a distinguished Neurosurgeon and Professor of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA and was responsible for running this project.He remarked
“This is a wake-up call for how we see motor complete spinal cord injury, We don’t have to necessarily rely on regrowth of nerves in order to regain function. The fact that we’ve observed this in four out of four people suggests that this is actually a common phenomenon in those diagnosed with complete paralysis.”
This breakthrough is in part due to lengthy studies conducted on paralyzed rats at UCLA. In 2009 Dr. Edgerton’s lab successfully used a combination of physical stimulation, drugs, and electrical currents to get rats with spinal injuries to run on a treadmill and regain their ability to fully bear their own weight.