A breakthrough in spinal cord injury treatment has helped persons who are completely paralyzed to regain some voluntary movement. Persons injured in a car wreck or in some other way soon may have a means to overcome their paralysis, at least in part.
As revealed recently by the National Institutes of Health, the newly tested treatment is a noninvasive procedure known as transcutaneous stimulation. It involves no surgery or implanted devices, as in previous paralysis treatments, but rather a device delivering electrical current through the spine by means of electrodes placed on the patient’s lower back.
Electrical currents then are applied through the patient’s spine, which then can re-enable the patient’s motor control.
So far the new technique has enabled five paralyzed male patients to make step-like movements after several weeks of re-training that employed electrical stimulation, an experimental drug and physical therapy.
The men all had been paralyzed below the waist for at least two years, some due to car accident injuries. Their legs had been entirely without movement and were unresponsive to any external or internal stimulation.
With the new treatment, the men didn’t actually walk, but they did move their legs, which were suspended in braces hanging from the ceiling so they could move with little gravity resistance.
During weekly treatments over an 18-week period, after electrodes were placed on their lower backs near the tailbone the men were suspended for 45 minutes by braces from the ceiling. This took weight off their legs and, while electrical currents stimulated their spines, they were able to take step-like motions.
The men also received doses of buspirone, a drug for treating anxiety disorders, twice daily for four weeks.
The successful results marked the first time in medical history that such results had been achieved without surgery.
Researchers believe one great value of the new treatments is replacing previous treatments involving invasive surgery.
An early study had shown that paralyzed patients’ spines retained some functional potential, which could be tapped via electrical stimulation. However, this would involve implanting electrodes in the spine to enable some movement of the legs.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles then embarked on a new study to devise a means of producing comparable results but without the cost and trauma of surgeries. In fact, researchers said the new method could cost 1/10th the cost of an implanted stimulator.
By means of transcutaneous stimulation, the spinal cord could be stimulated in a way that activates circuits that reconnect the brain to the neurons that control muscles. That’s according to V. Reggie Edgerton, senior author of the research and a UCLA distinguished professor of integrative biology and physiology, neurobiology and neurosurgery.
The researchers in the new study wanted to come up with a way to produce a similar result to the earlier study that implanted electrodes in the spine, but without the trauma and expense associated with surgeries. This also would lower the danger of surgical complications that could slow down the healing process. Also, it can be difficult to modify electrodes once they are implanted in the body.
Yet up until recently, conventional wisdom held that, in paralyzed persons, neurological circuits were completely dead. Now, though, it’s believed such circuits are only “asleep” or dormant, and electrical currents could reawaken them.
This advance provides new hope for spinal cord patients, many of whom were injured in auto accidents and may have feared they’d never move their legs again. Such an injury can be emotionally and financially devastating to a victim and his or her family.
But keep in mind that this new treatment is in its early stages and may take time to become available widely. Also, none of the patients who showed movements have walked yet, but only exhibited step-like movements.
Researchers say the treatments will need significantly more improvement to achieve a level where a patient can move while bearing his or her weight. Researchers also want to see if patients can regain bodily functions lost from paralysis such as bladder control, bowel control and sexual functionality.
Also, patients so far have not had lasting movements after the electrodes were removed. However, they did have increased sensation.
Though much work remains to be done, hope is on the horizon for spinal cord patients. In fact, researchers say a transcutaneous stimulation device based on the recent research could become widely available with two years.
How many such patients are there? In truth, as many as 6 million Americans — or 2% of us — are living with paralysis. Of those, 1.3 million have spinal cord paralysis.
That’s according to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which funded the research along with the Walkabout Foundation and the Russian Scientific Fund.
Jim Adler & Associates supports such research. Having helped many persons paralyzed in car accidents over the years, the law firm is aware of the terrible toll that can take. Jim Adler & Associates is hopeful that persons suffering paralyzing injuries eventually can have their movements restored.