Four men who received experimental electrical spine stimulators have begun to regain control of their bodies, according to findings published last Friday in the online journal PLOS ONE.
Dr. Susan Harkema, and her colleagues from the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, reported the results of two years’ worth of data from patients who received the implant on their lower spinal cords.
The device, which was named the Christopher and Dave Reeve Foundation’s “Big Idea”, is not technically a new concept. Since the early ’90s there were procedures that implanted stimulators in the hip and leg muscles of paralyzed patients. Where this new epidural stimulator differs is that it is placed directly on the spine. Earlier stimulators used electricity to force muscles to act directly, while the epidural stimulator in effect ‘hijacks’ the nervous system to send signals that would normally fail to travel down the spine. This allows the muscles to act naturally.
Dustin Shillcox, one of the four patients initially implanted with the epidural stimulator, was able to stand within a month of implantation, although he needed assistance to support his hips and knees. After two years of practice, he is now able to stand under his own power; but needs help balancing.
The exact status of each patient varies from one patient to the other. All four patients can move their legs, but only two can do sit-ups. All four have, however, reported “dramatically” increased control over their bowel, bladder, and sexual functions. To date, none of the patients have been able to walk under their own power as of yet.
The Christopher and Dave Reeve Foundation is currently attempting to raise the $15 million necessary to expand the procedure to several dozen more patients. Finding these subjects will not be an issue—over 4,000 men and women with paralysis have already signed up to be participants.
Cohen, E., “Breakthrough: Paralyzed Patients Stand,” CNN web site, July 24, 2015; http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/24/health/paralyzed-patients-stand-again/index.html.
Rejc, E. et al., “Effects of Lumbosacral Spinal Cord Epidural Stimulation for Standing after Chronic Complete Paralysis in Humans,” PLOS ONE, 2015, July 24, 2015; http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0133998.