Paralyzed Veterans of America is encouraged by new research that is enabling four young paralyzed men to voluntarily move their legs as a result of epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.
The research, reported by a team of life scientists at the University of Louisville, UCLA and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology and reported in April in the medical journal Brain, outlines how the implementation of an epidural stimulator has enabled four men with a chronic motor complete spinal cord injury to voluntarily move their lower extremities.
The study was funded in part by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
The research builds on an initial study published in the May 2011 edition of The Lancet, which evaluated the effects of epidural stimulation on the first participant, Rob Summers, who recovered a number of motor functions as a result of the stimulation.
The latest research documented in Brain details the impact of epidural stimulation on four participants, including new tests conducted on Summers. Most promising is that the other three participants were able to move voluntarily – from lifting and swinging their legs to moving their ankles to sitting up without support – following the implantation and activation of the stimulator.
“This is a very exciting study and perhaps another tool in the toolbox, another form of therapy that can possibly be used down the line for many more people with spinal cord injury and disease,” said Maureen Simonson, director of research and education at Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Paralyzed Veterans of America is supportive of any kind of research to help find cures and preventative measures that help persons with spinal cord injury have greater quality of life.”
Research participants also have shown a number of improvements in their overall health, including increased muscle mass, regulation of blood pressure, reduced fatigue and an improved sense of well-being. All four men also were able to bear weight independently.
“We have uncovered a fundamentally new intervention strategy that can dramatically affect recovery of voluntary movement in individuals with complete paralysis even years after injury,” said Susan Harkema, Ph.D., professor at the University of Louisville and primary author of The Lancet article. “The belief that no recovery is possible and complete paralysis is permanent has been challenged.”
Researchers remain optimistic that the epidural stimulation will continue to improve motor functions for individuals with paralysis, with strong evidence pointing to continued advancements enabling those with complete spinal cord injury to bear weight independently, maintain balance and even take steps.
Still, Simonson stressed that while the latest research is promising, it should not stop other researchers from seeking out cures and therapies not only for spinal cord injury and disease but also for associated secondary complications.
Paralyzed Veterans of America offers more than $1 million in research grants in the fall, as well as more than $300,000 in education grants to train medical professionals about spinal cord injury care.
“We don’t want people to stop trying,” she said, “as all research is just little parts of the puzzle to finding a cure for spinal cord injury and disease.”
Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Research and Education Dept
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.