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Spinal Cord Research Helps Paralyzed Men Move

Update Date: Apr 08, 2014 09:32 AM EDT

Neuroscientist Susan Harkema from the University of Louisville was in the middle of studying one of her patient's nerve pathways when he started moving one of his toes. Even though toe movement might be normal for some, it was not for Harkema's patient, Rob Summers, who was paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury. After more tests, Harkema realized that she might be on to something.

Harkema's study recruited paralyzed patients in order to examine nerve pathways after sending electrical stimulation to the broken spinal cord. She did not expect any of her patients to regain any kind of movement at all, which was why she quickly assumed that Summers' first movement in his toe was an involuntary spasm. However, after asking Summers to move his other toes, which he was capable of doing, Harkema was shocked.

Summers' case was five years ago. Since then, Harkema and her team have used electrical stimulation on three more paralyzed patients. All of her four patients have been able to move their limbs significantly. They can wiggle their toes, lift and swing their legs and sit up without help. Two of them can do situps.

The technology involves implanting a stimulator near the abdomen where it is connected to wires that send the charges directly to the spinal cord. The stimulator can be controlled via an external remote control and can only be used on one leg at a time. Even though it can give patients some movement back, it has not given anyone the ability to walk again.

"This is a breakthrough," commented Dr. Barth Green, co-founder of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis at the University of Miami reported by CNN. Green was not a part of the study. "It shows you can have a living spinal cord under the layer of their injury."

Harekma's study is not the first to find that electrical stimulation in general can help paralyzed patients move. However, her study is the first to show that when the stimulation is sent to the spinal cord, the body can voluntarily move. The research team will implant the stimulator in eight more paralyzed patients. They hope that by giving patients some kind of movement back, their lives could improve drastically.

"That's a difficult thing to go through life not having...It just changed my entire life. It's extraordinary and amazing," Dustin Shillcox, the fourth patient to get the device implanted, said.

The study was published in the journal, Brain.

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