Science and research can bring amazing positive benefits to our every day lives. Take, for example, the awesome possibility that electricity may provide hope to men and women who suffer paralysis.
Three years ago, doctors at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Center at the University of Louisville reported that zapping a paralyzed man’s spinal cord with electricity allowed him to stand and move his legs. Now they’ve done the same with three other patients.
The incredible results have been published in the journal Brain, and tell the story of four men — Kent Stephenson, Andrew Meas, Dustin Shillcox and Rob Summers — all of whom received their life changing injuries in vehicle accidents in their 20s.
Click here to watch Kent Stephenson (seen above), as he explains the accident:
“My motor locked up on my bike. It caused it to land nose-down. The doctors came in and they explained that there was no hope for me to regain any mobility or movement, that I needed to learn to live from the wheelchair.”
To see how this has worked for Stephenson, fast forward in the video to about 3:45 to watch Stephenson lift his legs in a series of remarkable clips. Once you see his smile, you understand how amazing this experience is for him. As he says, “Once you’re not able to stand on your legs and go so long not being able to stand up by yourself, then you have the stimulator and you turn it on and you just stand up on your own, and it’s just like… I’m standing.”
As Wired magazine explains:
Each of the four men received an epidural implant that delivers currents that mimic signals from the brain. They work in a similar way to myoelectric prostheses, which are grafted on to remaining nerves in the muscles and stimulate these to control movement. In these cases, those wearing the prosthetic can actually move the artificial limb voluntarily, just by thinking about it, because those salvaged nerves are still receiving information from the brain.
The researchers have also discovered that as the four candidates continue through their training, they need lower and lower electrical frequencies to instigate movement, as if the neural pathways are retraining the spinal cord to think differently.
The classic victim of Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is a young man, with over 80 percent of injuries occurring in males and nearly half of all injuries occurring between ages 16 and 30. Approximately 273,000 individuals are currently living with SCI in the U.S., with roughly 12,000 new cases each year. These injuries are most often seen in car accidents (35.6 percent), falls (28.5 percent), acts of violence (14.3 percent), and sports (9.2 percent).
So this new research could affect the lives of thousands of people.
“This is wonderful news. Spinal cord injury need no longer be a lifelong sentence of paralysis,” said Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, one of the National Institutes of Health, according to NBC News. “It is just downright marvelous. The big message here is that people with spinal cord injury of the type these men had no longer need to think they have a lifelong sentence of paralysis.”
Experts add that refining the use of electrical stimulators for people with paralysis might eventually prove more effective than standard approaches, including medicines and physical therapy.
Yes, science can be amazing.
Remember the story of the boy born with no fingers, whose father built a new hand for him?
When Paul McCarthy was looking for an inexpensive but functional prosthetic hand for his son Leon, he discovered that he could either pay thousands of dollars for a factory-made prosthetic hand or he could print one on his 3D printer at a fraction of the cost (the price tab for the printer was around $2000, and the materials cost about $120).
And now the finding from the University of Louisville that direct electrical stimulation can enable voluntary movement in patients who were thought to be completely paralyzed holds incredible promise for the future for individuals who suffer from SCI.
Hooray for science!
Photo Credit: University of Louisville online video