Paralysis Patients Move Again in Shocking Breakthrough

An accidental discovery is giving four paralyzed men a new lease on life. During experiments with paralysis patients that entailed electrically stimulating their nerves, a neuroscientist made a shocking discovery when a patient made a breakthrough that allowed him to move his legs again. While none of the four men have regained the ability to walk, the fact that they have regained substantial lower body functioning is astonishing to researchers.

The breakthrough came about through an accidental discovery. Neuroscientist Susan Harkema was conducting research on the nerve pathways of patients with paralysis. One day, to her great shock, the electrical stimulator she was using allowed a man paralyzed below the neck to move his toes.

For a total of five years, Harkema and her team worked with four different men with paralysis, and all of them regained significant abilities. While they have not regained the ability to walk, they can pull themselves into sitting positions without support, and lift their legs and move them. Rob Summers, the original patient, has regained the ability to stand.

Summers says that the electrical stimulator treatment has changed his life in dramatic ways. He has regained a great deal of movement and sensation, and he is now able to travel and live in a more independent fashion. Summers is not alone: patient Dustin Shilcox said the device has greatly improved his bladder and bowel functions, and his sexual function.

The breakthrough has come as a shock to scientists, because the way in which it has allowed patients with paralysis to move again overturns previous ideas about how the spinal cord works, and how it is damaged in those who are paralyzed. Researchers now think that the treatment works by effectively retraining the nerves that it stimulates, teaching them to work with the brain. Harkema has come to the conclusion that the spinal cord has the ability to, in effect, decide to move on its own.

Previously, scientists thought that repairing injury to the spinal cord would require the re-growth of neurons, or else their replacement with stem cells. Electrical stimulation proves that this is not necessary. This is a very fortunate discovery for patients with paralysis who wish to regain functionality, given the difficulties and impracticalities encountered with the other two approaches.

The electrical stimulator is a device about the size of a pacemaker, which is implanted under the skin of the abdomen. It sends electrical pulses to the spinal cord. The fact that it doesn’t actually touch the brain, generally held to be the source of motor activity, is why it was so shocking when the electrical stimulation allowed the men to overcome their paralysis enough to move again. The stimulator was originally developed to treat chronic pain.

Electrical treatment with the stimulator does have limits. None of the men have regained the ability to walk, at least not yet. The stimulator can only allow one leg at a time to function. Still, the difference has been very dramatic for the four men, and examinations have revealed that they are healthier overall, thanks to improvements to heart and respiratory function.

However, scientists believe that electrical stimulation treatment could be an important part of a broader approach to treating paralysis. The four men in question were all believed to have been “hopeless” with respect to overcoming their paralysis, and the treatment has already proved this to be in error. Harkema and her team are already recruiting another four volunteers for a second round of testing with the device.

Harkema and others believe that these shocking breakthroughs offer a great deal of hope for helping other patients with paralysis who have been told they will never move again. According to these scientists, it may be possible to improve the electrical stimulation technology, and other techniques could be developed to work in combination with it. In the meantime, the four patients with paralysis have all reported that the treatment has greatly enhanced their quality of life.

source: Liberty voice

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