Earlier this week, researchers at the University of Louisville’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Center made a truly stunning announcement that some medical experts have hailed as “a milestone” in the area of spinal injury research.
The researchers announced that four men, all of whom had been paralyzed from the waist down and led to believe that they would never regain any movement, are now able to voluntarily move both their legs and feet on a limited basis thanks to a surgically implanted device.
The device, which is roughly the size of a deck of playing cards, is designed to emit electrical pulses. Here, the researchers theorize that the constant electrical signals produced by the device serve to stimulate the damaged spinal cord neurons to such a degree that even the input from exercise eventually proves sufficient to produce a motor response.
The study began back in 2009, when the researchers implanted the device just below the damaged spinal area of a former college baseball player who had been paralyzed below the neck in a hit-and-run accident. Miraculously, the young man stood on his own only three days later and took his first steps after a year.
While the researchers were skeptical at first, believing that the implant would really only benefit those patients like the baseball player who had lingering sensation in their paralyzed extremities, several subsequent trials proved them wrong.
In addition to regaining limited voluntary movement — sometimes without the stimulation — the four patients also added muscle mass, and reported feeling more energized and altogether happier.
While stopping short of calling it a solution for allowing patients to walk again, the researchers did indicate that the limited study is a breakthrough and that, through the testing of better stimulator technology, they believe spinal cord patients will someday be able to “work toward stepping.”
Their peers in the scientific community were perhaps more enthused by the study, indicating that it can perhaps lead to improved quality of life for those with spinal cord injuries and, more importantly, give them hope.
It’s extremely important for those for whom work is simply not an option due to a spinal injury to remember that they do have options for securing much-needed financial assistance via the Social Security Disability program.
Source: Reuters, “Paralyzed patients regain movement after spinal implant -study,” Sharon Begley, April 8, 2014