Paraplegics regain some movement with electrical spinal cord stimulation

Katie Callahan Contributor
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Four paralyzed men involved in electrical spinal cord stimulation studies now do what they never thought they could: move their legs, CNN reports.

Susana Harkema, neuroscientist and rehabilitation research director at Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, didn’t expect that the participants in the study would be able to move.

But by sending electricity to broken spinal cords through a device, Harkema and her team at the University of Louisville and the University of California-Los Angeles have successfully helped four men regain partial movement.

“It’s been a long-held belief by scientists and clinicians alike that if you have no ability to move after two years, there’s not any possibility that you’re going to be able to move,” Harkema told the Wall Street Journal. “What these results show is that is not the case.”

The study was published online Tuesday in the journal Brain.

One of the study participants, Kent Stephenson, told USA Today that the study will allow him to do more with his life, more than he was told he would be able to do by doctors after he was paralyzed from the neck down in a 2009 motocross accident in Texas.

“At the age of 22, my doctors were telling me, ‘Here’s a wheelchair, get used to it,'” Stephenson told USA Today. “I feel like I’m better than I was. I don’t feel like I’m going backwards anymore. … I can pursue something in life.”

Signals from the brain to the legs that were once considered lost now fully function, USA Today reports.

At least two years after being paralyzed, the four are now able to move their legs, ankle and toe muscles, and support their own weight for a short time with the help of an electrical stimulation device.

Even without the use of the epidural stimulation device, these men now can control their bladder and bowel movements, sexual function, and better regulation of body temperature and blood pressure.

CNN reported that the device, which is used through an external remote control and placed in the lower abdomen, can only make one leg work at a time through wires pulses sent to the spine.

The next step, according to UCLA researcher V. Reggie Edgerton in the Los Angeles Times, completely remove the need for the device and “send electrical currents powerful enough to drive such learning through the skin.”

Katie Callahan