April 8: Four men who had each been paralysed from the chest down for more than two years and been told their situation was hopeless regained the ability to voluntarily move their legs and feet after an electrical device was implanted in their spines, researchers reported today.
In a new study published in the journal Brain, researchers gave an update on Rob Summers, of Portland, Oregon, the first to try the treatment, and described successful results for all three of the other men who have tried it. All had been paralysed from below the neck or chest for at least two years from a spinal cord injury.
Video from the University of Louisville shows one of the men moving his legs up and down when the implanted device was activated.
The study’s lead author, Claudia Angeli of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Centre at the University of Louisville, said she believes the device’s zapping of the spinal cord helps it to receive simple commands from the brain, through circuitry that some doctors had assumed was beyond repair after severe paralysis.
The first four to undergo task-specific training with epidural stimulation at the Human Locomotion Research Centre laboratory, Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville.
Dustin Shillcox, 29, of Green River, Wyoming, was seriously injured in a car crash in 2010. Last year, he had the electrical device surgically implanted in his lower back in Kentucky.
Five days later, he wiggled his toes and moved one of his feet for the first time.
“It was very exciting and emotional,” said Shillcox. “It brought me a lot of hope.”
Shillcox now practices moving his legs for about an hour a day at home in addition to therapy sessions in the lab, sometimes wearing a Superman T-shirt for inspiration.
He said it has given him more confidence and he feels more comfortable going out.
“The future is very exciting for people with spinal cord injuries,” he said.
Experts say it’s a promising development but warn the experimental treatment isn’t a cure. When the implanted device is activated, the men can wiggle their toes, lift their legs and stand briefly. But they are not able to walk and still use wheelchairs to get around.
The new study was paid for by the US National Institutes of Health, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and others.
Experts said refining the use of electrical stimulators for people with paralysis might eventually prove more effective than standard approaches, including medicines and physical therapy.
“In the next five to 10 years, we may have one of the first therapies that can improve the quality of life for people with a spinal cord injury,” said Gregoire Courtine, a paralysis expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
Ellaway said it was unrealistic to think that paralysed people would be able to walk after such treatment but it was feasible they might eventually be able to stand unaided or take a few steps. “The next step will be to see how long this improvement persists or if they will need this implant for the rest of their lives,” he said.