Study successfully uses electrode implants to help paraplegics move their legs

A happy, and amazing, study to start the day with. Using implanted electrodes, researchers are helping paraplegics move their legs again.

Patients who have severe spinal cord injuries can often become paralyzed. Depending on the type of injury and the area of the cord injured, the patient may have both lower limbs paralyzed, or may have all four limbs paralyzed, among other possible outcomes.

Having the lower limbs paralyzed is referred to as paraplegia. A new technique was used successfully on four young male paraplegics to help restore motor function to their lower limbs. All four of these men had sustained injuries to their spinal cords that caused them to lose motor control of their legs. In essence, they couldn’t move any muscles in their legs or feet, much less walk or stand.

Currently, patients who are paraplegic would always need assistive devices to move. For example, they might need to use a wheelchair or some other device. The patients selected had all been paraplegics for some time and had been receiving physical therapy to their leg muscles to prevent wasting and malformation.

This patient was able to move his leg for the first time using implanted electrodes.

This patient was able to move his leg for the first time using implanted electrodes.

In a normally functioning spinal cord, sensory messages travel from the feet and legs to the brain. When the patient needs to move his lower limbs, the brain sends impulses through motor nerves to the muscles causing them to move. The nerve cells that perform these functions travel from one place to another via the spinal cord. Think of the spinal cord as an ethernet cable connecting the computer to the router. It transmits information from the brain (computer) to the router (muscles) and vice versa (as the router receives external input to transmit to the computer.)

These men all had injuries that damaged their “ethernet cables.” To fix that, using the computer analogy, you “just” replace the cable. But the spinal cord is much more complex and can’t be replaced as easily as a cable. Attempts to somehow fix the damaged area of the spinal cord (e.g., by using stem cells) have had somewhat limited results.

This technique acts to bypass the injured area completely.

Neurosurgeons implanted electrodes below the level of the injury to the cord. These electrodes emit current in specific patterns in response to either sensory input from the patient or other signals. These generated electrical patterns, stimulate motor nerves that run to the muscles. When stimulated, they cause the muscles to react. In these cases, the men can use sound cues. The patients use a hand-held device that can activate the spinal electrode array, turning it on of off. Then, using voice commands that are picked up by sensors and translated into electrical impulses, they can order their legs, feet and toes to move. The video below shows one of the patients telling his leg to move and it responds almost instantly.

Rob Summers lost the movement in his legs after a hit-and-run accident.

Rob Summers lost the movement in his legs after a hit-and-run accident.

The movements are clumsy, but considering that prior to this the patients had no ability to move these limbs at all, the results are amazing. Also the video shows how another patient, former Oregon State pitcher Rob Summers, who was paralyzed in a hit-and-run accident, can now get himself into a sitting position, from laying back, using his legs.  You’ll see Summers laying back, then lifting his legs to help him sit back up. This is something that he could only do in the past by using his arms to pull himself upright (or by having someone assist him), since he could lift his legs.

It still remains to be seen how these patients will progress in the future. They’ll continue to have physical and occupational therapy. Perhaps they’ll be eventually be able to walk with limited or no assistance.

The researchers who did the study are actively continuing to work. They are going to do implants in additional patients to gather more data. They are also working to improve the hand-held stimulator as their patients continue with ongoing therapy.

This is a follow-up study done at the University of Louisville by Dr. C. Angeli, et al. Part of the funding for this research came from the National Institutes of Health. Continued funding of this, and many other projects, is contingent on the government providing research funds. With the current state of affairs in Washington, funding for research always seems near the top of the list to feel the budget-cutting axe. I did a story on the horrific research cuts that occurred thanks to the sequester. I fear that funding for medical research – for diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer disease, mental health, HIV, stroke, cancer research and hundreds of other ailments, will continue to decrease.


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Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • 4th Turning

    Other than family and true friends and, of course, medical folks, it is impossible to imagine what a
    single 24 hrs. is like for anyone in this situation. However, it is not impossible for us to attempt to
    imagine what life is like. Am thinking that is, indeed, the definition of empathy.
    Read this novel as a young man. Haven’t seen the movie but am seriously considering looking it
    up on netflix.
    Quads have since had a special place in my heart. Knowing most spinal/other limb injury individuals
    are in VA hospitals or nursing home type places, I always wondered about “volunteering” but
    haven’t had the opportunity to follow through so far. The media by singling out success stories
    of a few who have been properly fitted, rehabbed, and are getting on with their lives give the
    impression all is well in that much bigger unseen world behind the photographers. I wonder…

    “It came out of the Cannes Film Festival with three awards and a slightly pious aroma, as if it had been made for joyless Student Peace Union types of thirty-five years ago. But it isn’t like that at all. Trumbo has taken the most difficult sort of material — the story of a soldier who lost his arms, his legs, and most of his face in a World War I shell burst — and handled it, strange to say, in a way that’s not so much anti-war as pro-life. Perhaps that’s why I admire it.”

    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/johnny-got-his-gun-1971

  • Bookbinder

    Absolutely wonderful!
    I’m just not so sure it’s news. We used to do this to dead toads with a C battery back in the 50s before we were old enough to know better.

  • 4th Turning

    Women definitely. Older people have adapted and know what’s ahead for
    young folk and may be mentally and spiritually willing to forego/defer…?
    I, as you may’ve surmised, was remembering that awful epidemic of
    drive-bys beginning in the 90’s.

    (a p.s. for future consideration?)
    http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=302899093

  • Bill_Perdue

    Wonderful news. Hopefully the healthcare cuts due to the bipartisan sequesters will be corrected.

    We need socialized medicine.

  • docsterx

    And women and older people, too.

  • 4th Turning

    A spinal cord injury is one of the most devastating wounds that can be caused by gun violence. According to BrainandSpinalCord.org, about 12,000 new cases of spinal cord injury occur each year. Violence accounts for 15.1 percent of spinal cord injuries, most of which are due to gunshot wounds. In the United States, there are approximately 259,000 people in the United States living with a spinal cord injury. Although most spinal chord injuries result in paralysis, there is still hope for the victims because of rehabilitation.

    http://www.hunewsservice.com/gunshot-wounds-to-the-spinal-chord-1.3124947#.U0_5JVVdV6E

    Hopefully there will be some black and latino subjects in the next round of experiments.

  • Indigo

    There’s a modern assumption to the effect that scientific breakthroughs and medical advances happen during war time as a response to military needs. This past decade and a half has been a study in that possibility. The advances in military medicine and the prosthetic limbs developed for the seriously wounded are genuinely impressive. That an electrical impulse can be devised to allow paraplegics to move their limbs fits right into that trend. It’s a good thing, in fact, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m hopeful we can continue these remarkable scientific and bio-medical advances as we segue into a post-militarist social structure. In fact, I’m hopeful we can actually make that transition.

  • bkmn

    This is largely a modification of existing pulse generator technology, most commonly used in pacemakers. The pacemaker market is leveling off so the manufacturers are looking to see what else can be done using modified pulse generators. Improvements in battery life are making it possible to use this technology to deliver impulses sufficient to stimulate the large muscles of the legs.

    While a step forward it will require substantial R&D money to develop more sophisticated pulse generators that are able to stimulate multiple muscle groups that will be required to allow these patients to walk again.

  • StraightGrandmother

    Remember TeaPartier and Republicans, small government, small government, cut everything to the bone.
    Oh wait, your father shows signs of Alzheimers so NOW let’s throw money at Alzheimers research? I hate the narcisism of the Republican theory of Government. Nobody gets anything unless you personally experience it in your family, then it becomes “critical.” Just like Obamacare, sure they were sitting cozy, had health insurance through work, therefore Healthcare Reform was so totally a big waste of time and money.

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