An electrical implant that stimulates the spinal cord is allowing people who have been paralyzed for years to walk again. Researchers caution that these are preliminary results, but for the three people who are walking again it is a miracle.
Two teams of scientists have been working independently on helping patients walk again. The patients must use a rolling walker or walk with other people in order to balance, but they are walking. Scientists implant an electrical stimulator into the patient which saps the spinal cord with an electrical current in order to make the leg muscles move. They are not being moved voluntarily though and if the electrical current is turned off then the patients cannot continue to move their legs.
This is good news for people with spinal cord injury. While they may not regain normal function of their legs, they may regain enough function to get out of their wheelchairs to travel shorted distances independently. While the pool of people who have gotten the implants is small the researchers say that it’s an approach with hope for the future.
The electric impulse therapy is exciting to researchers because it taps into residual nerve connections (the ones that still exist after the injury) to get the muscles moving. Severe spinal cord injury leaves the brain unable to communicate with muscles which is why paralysis occurs. Other research has focussed on External skeletons with electrical motors to help patients with paralysis move. This is one of the first technologies that uses the body’s own muscles. The electrical currents do not allow for feeling, nor for independent movement of the muscles but they give hope to those with paralysis of some functional improvement in their condition.
The therapy has not worked with all the patients and the researchers have yet to determine what the impediment is. One patient also sustained a fractured hip while doing a rehab exercise even though he was being carefully supervised and monitored by therapists.
This isn’t the solution to paralysis but it offer hope to many.
You can watch one patient’s therapy here on YouTube.