Research Breakthrough: Electrical Stimulation of the spine works.
Researchers from UCLA, Caltech, and the University of Louisville have used a stimulating electrode array to assist a paralyzed man to stand, step on a treadmill with assistance, and, over time, to regain voluntary movements of his limbs.
Watch the video: Here is an excerpt from Caltech’s news release:
The electrical signals provided by the array, the researchers have found, stimulate the spinal cord’s own neural network so that it can use the sensory input derived from the legs to direct muscle and joint movements.The subject in the new work is a 25-year-old former athlete who was completely paralyzed below the chest in a hit-and-run accident in July 2006. He suffered a complete motor injury at the C7/T1 level of the spinal cord, but retained some sensation in his legs.
Before being implanted with the epidural stimulating array, the patient underwent 170 locomotor training sessions over a period of more than two years at the Frazier Rehab Institute. In locomotor training, a rehabilitative technique used on partially paralyzed patients, the body of the patient is suspended in a harness over a moving treadmill while trained therapists repeatedly help manipulate the legs in a repetitive stepping motion.
The training had essentially no effect on this patient, confirming the severity of his spinal injury. The training also established a “baseline” against which the subsequent efficacy of the electrical stimulation could be measured.
After implantation with the device, however, the patient could—while receiving electrical stimulation, and after a few weeks of locomotor training—push himself into a standing position and bear weight on his own. He can now remain standing, and bearing weight, for 20 minutes at a time. With the aid of a harness support and some therapist assistance, he can make repeated stepping motions on a treadmill. With repeated daily training and electrical stimulation, the patient regained the ability to voluntarily move his toes, ankles, knees, and hips on command.
The patient has no voluntary control over his limbs when the stimulation is turned off.
In addition, over time he experienced improvements in several types of autonomic function, such as bladder and bowel control, as well as temperature regulation—a “surprise” outcome, Burdick says, that, if replicated in further studies, could substantially improve the lives of patients with spinal-cord injuries.
This exciting breakthrough is reported in the Lancet medical journal.