Scientists Bypass Brain to Help Paralyzed Patients Regain Motion


“We have uncovered a fundamentally new intervention strategy that can dramatically affect recovery of voluntary movement in individuals with complete paralysis even years after surgery.”

Even those whose ears get numb after too much “doctor-speak” can hear the excitement in this report from neurology journal Brain. Read it over again, and you’ll realize that you’re not having trouble understanding what it’s saying…you’re most likely having trouble believing that it’s true.

But ever since the report was published last September, the exciting truth has spread all over the news, from CNN to internet buzz-site Mashable. Both of those outlets called it a “breakthrough.”

Scientists are finding a way to help paralyzed patients move again.

Scientists Stumped by Success

CNN describes the reaction of Dr. Susan Harkema, a neuroscientist at the University of Louisville and the lead author of the Brain report, as a “Holy sh-t!” moment. Because those are the words that Dr. Harkema involuntarily shouted when her patient, Rob Summers, was able to move his toes on command.

At the time it happened, Dr. Harkema was engaged in a research endeavor to learn more about nerve pathways by applying electrical stimulation to broken spinal cords. In the case of Rob Summers and her other study subjects, an electrical stimulator was surgically implanted in the lower abdomen. An external remote control was used to send electrical pulses to the spinal cord.

Dr. Harkema’s project had nothing to do with helping patients regain voluntary movement. It wouldn’t have crossed her mind. While it’s certainly been possible for doctors to induce muscle movement through electrical impulses, this is the first time researchers have seen the body bypass its central command system to help an immobilized patient move at will.

And they admit to being stumped by it.

“Maybe the spinal cord makes the decision to move on its own and then executes the movement,” Harkema said, according to CNN. “Otherwise I don’t know how you would see what we see today.”

‘Extraordinary and Amazing’

Since that first discovery, Dr. Harkema and her research team have repeated the electrical stimulation technique on three more paralyzed men. All of their subjects regained astonishing range of motion. Toe wiggling was just the beginning. They are swinging their legs and able to sit up without assistance. This brings a huge boost to their well-being, doctors say, by improving the patients’ heart and respiratory function after years of lying inert.

Two of the patients are able to do sit-ups. Another has dramatically regained bladder, bowel and sexual function.

“It just changed my entire life,” a patient enthused. “It’s extraordinary and amazing.”

Scratching the Surface

As word got out, inquiries flooded in from more than 1,700 other paralyzed patients wanting to know how they can implement this technology. Naturally, the hope is that this electrical implant can help patients walk again. So far, however, researchers caution against that level of hope. The electrical stimulator can only help with the motion of one part of the body at a time. For a patient to use it as a walking aid, he would have to turn it on, move one leg, turn it off and then back on again to make the other leg work…and meanwhile, the other muscles needed to maintain balance and direction would be waiting for their turn.

So, for now, the researchers on Dr. Harkema’s team are implanting the device in 8 more patients, and looking for a design company that will help them invent a device to stimulate more than one muscle group at a time.

If You Need Help, Call Us

The Brain Injury Law Center specializes in cases of paralysis and other loss of quality of life resulting from traumatic brain injury. If you need help in a case of brain injury, contact attorney Stephen M. Smith at (757) 244-7000 for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation, or fill out the Free Case Review form on this page.

video credit: CNN

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