The new spinal cord stimulation technique may help paralyzed patients move again, as recent tests have had extremely promising results.
The project was conducted by an extensive team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, the University of California, Los Angeles and the Pavlov Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, led by Prof. Dr. V. Reggie Edgerton. Together, they have achieved the development of a technique that can revive some of the neural networks in the patients’ paralyzed regions, without surgical intervention.
Their method utilized low intensity electrical shocks delivered in specific areas on the patient’s back, around the spinal chord. The electrical currents were delivered transcutaneously and therefore, the method was pain free for the patients. This stimulation appears to revive nervous activity and so the patients can regain movement, at least to a certain extent.
The researchers tested their method on five different subjects, aged 19-56, who had been paralyzed for years beforehand. They underwent weekly 45-minute spinal cord stimulation sessions for a period of 18 weeks. In the first month, the patients were able to move their legs slightly, but this was a tremendous achievement considering that they had not moved their legs in years. The researchers actually described this moment as being extremely intense for the patients, as they kept looking at themselves in the mirror moving their legs, unable to grasp the fact that they are the ones dictating the movement.
After the first month during which the spinal cord stimulation technique was administered alongside physical therapy, the research team introduced a daily dose of buspirone, an anti-anxiety medication that was shown to enhance the effects of the spinal cord stimulation therapy. The medication significantly improved the range of movement that the patients had, and they actually managed to move their legs unassisted, at the same rate they had managed with stimulation and physical therapy.
“It’s as if we’ve reawakened some networks so that once the individuals learned how to use those networks, they become less dependent and even independent of the stimulation,” explained Prof. Edgerton.
Prof. Edgerton pointed out that the research bears great potential for paralyzed patients, because it offers a significant improvement of their condition. He advised that the spinal cord stimulation procedures be paired with physical therapy, so as to be able to get the most benefits possible out of it. While it is still insufficient to actually cure paralysis, this technique offers a very strong baseline for future projects that could build on it and develop new and improved methods, so that one day paralysis will cease to be a life-long sentence for patients.
Image Source: nibib.nih.gov