Breakthrough Spinal Cord Therapy Offers Hope for Paralyzed People

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

A new study using epidural electrical stimulation was found to help paraplegic men to voluntarily move their legs, providing hope to six million Americans who are paralyzed.

Picture this: Four men, all classified with chronic, motor complete spinal cord injuries, who have been paralyzed for years are able to voluntarily raise their legs. This picture has come to life, thanks to a breakthrough therapy known as epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.

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According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, nearly one in 50 people lives with paralysis, or approximately six million people, of whom 1,275,000 have spinal cord injuries. That number is nearly 33 previous higher than previous estimates showed.

The finding is revolutionary in that the other study participants were able to execute voluntary movements immediately after the implantation and activation of the stimulator, according to the researchers.

Commenting on the study, Peter T. Wilderotter, Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation president and CEO, told ishonest, “Now, with these results, we are at a crossroad where technology has the potential to reverse “permanent” conditions like paralysis and essentially rewire how our bodies work by bridging the gap that biology is not prepared to support right now. This study challenges the notion that the spinal cord, once damaged, cannot repair or recover. This offers tremendous hope to the six million Americans living with paralysis. We may just need to redefine paralysis altogether.”

Watch: What Is Spinal Cord Injury? »

What Is Epidural Stimulation?

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In epidural stimulation, the electrical current is applied at varying frequencies and intensities to specific locations on the lumbosacral spinal cord, corresponding to the dense neural bundles that largely control the movement of the hips, knees, ankles, and toes. In the study, once the signal was triggered, the spinal cord reengaged its neural network to control and direct muscle movements.

When combined with rehabilitative therapy, the impact of epidural stimulation intensified, according to the researchers. Over the course of the study, the participants were able to activate movements with less stimulation, showing the ability of the spinal network to learn and improve nerve functions.

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Hope for People with Paralysis

According to Roderic Pettigrew, the director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, epidural electrical stimulation may help a large cohort of people with spinal cord injuries.

Finally, the scientists believe that epidural electrical stimulation will continue to result in improved motor functions, and that individuals with complete spinal cord injuries will be able to bear weight independently, maintain balance, and work towards stepping as advancements in the treatment continue.

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