Exciting news was reported by an international team of life scientists at the University of Louisville, KY; UCLA, Los Angeles, CA; and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology, Saint Petersburg, Russia; who say that epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord has allowed four men who’ve been paralyzed for years the ability to move their legs. This study was published in the medical journal, Brain.
All four participants were classified with a chronic motor complete spinal cord injury and were unable to move their lower extremities prior to the implantation of an epidural stimulator. The research builds on an initial study, published in 2011, which evaluated the effects of epidural stimulation in one participant who recovered a number of motor functions as a result of the intervention.
The key findings in this study show that the three new participants were able to execute voluntary movements immediately following the implantation and activation of the stimulator. The results and recovery time were unexpected, leading researchers to speculate that some pathways may be intact post-injury and therefore able to facilitate voluntary movements.
“Two of the four subjects were diagnosed as motor and sensory complete injured with no chance of recovery at all,” Claudia Angeli, PhD, senior researcher, Human Locomotor Research Center at Frazier Rehab Institute, and assistant professor, University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center and lead author. “Because of epidural stimulation, they can now voluntarily move their hips, ankles, and toes. This is groundbreaking for the entire field and offers a new outlook that the spinal cord, even after a severe injury, has great potential for functional recovery.”
These results were achieved through continual direct epidural electrical stimulation of the participants’ lower spinal cords, mimicking signals the brain normally transmits to initiate movement. Once the signal was triggered, the spinal cord reengaged its neural network to control and direct muscle movements. When coupling the intervention with rehabilitative therapy, the impact of epidural stimulation intensified. Over the course of the study, the researchers noted that the participants were able to activate movements with less stimulation, demonstrating the ability of the spinal network to learn and improve nerve functions.
In addition to regaining voluntary movement, the research participants displayed several other improvements in their overall health, including the increase of muscle mass and regulation of their blood pressure, as well as reduced fatigue and transformational changes to their sense of well-being. Additionally, all four men were able to bear weight independently.