Spinal stimulation helps paraplegic patients regain movement

Paraplegic patients can regain voluntary movement through the use of electrical spinal stimulation, according to a National Institutes of Health study.

The study is a continuation of a 2009 pilot trial involving one paralyzed individual, in which electrical spinal stimulation, in combination with daily treadmill training was found to help the patient regain some ability to move.

In the current follow-up study, which included the original paralyzed patient and three additional paraplegic patients — two with complete motor and sensory paralysis — the goal was to increase the sensitivity of local circuits within the spinal cord that carry out basic motor functions without input from the brain, such as stepping.

“We hoped to determine if they [patients] could voluntarily move in the presence of stimulation, and also how controlled they could be about their movements,” Claudia Angeli, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Louisville Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, stated in a press release.

Within a few days of receiving electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, the three new patients regained some voluntary control of previously paralyzed muscles. All patients were able to sync leg, ankle and toe movements in unison with the rise and fall of a wave displayed on a computer screen, while three of four were able to change the force at which they flexed their leg.

According to V. Reggie Edgerton, PhD, professor of integrative biology and physiology at UCLA and the researcher responsible for developing the rehabilitation, there may be dormant connections in patients with complete motor paralysis that can be revived by spinal stimulation and enhanced over time when combined with physical rehabilitation.

“Spinal stimulation has been successful in four out of four patients,” Roderic Pettigrew, PhD, MD, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) at NIH, stated in the release. “There is evidence to suggest that a large cohort of individuals, previously with little realistic hope of any meaningful recovery from spinal cord injury, may benefit from this intervention.”

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