(Reuters) – Four men who had each been paralyzed from the chest down for more than two years and been told their situation was hopeless regained the ability to voluntarily move their legs and feet – though not to walk – after an electrical device was implanted in their spines, researchers reported on Tuesday.
The success, albeit in a small number of patients, offers hope that a fundamentally new treatment can help many of the 6 million paralyzed Americans, including the 1.3 million with spinal cord injuries. Even those whose cases are deemed so hopeless they are not offered further rehabilitation might benefit, scientists say.
The results also cast doubt on a key assumption about spinal cord injury: that treatment requires damaged neurons to regrow or be replaced with, for instance, stem cells. Both approaches have proved fiendishly difficult and, in the case of stem cells, controversial.
“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,” Dr Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview. “They can achieve some level of voluntary function,” which he called “a milestone” in spinal cord injury research. His institute partly funded the study, which was published in the journal Brain.
The partial recovery achieved by “hopeless” patients suggests that physicians and rehabilitation therapists may be giving up on millions of paralyzed people. That’s because physical therapy can mimic some aspects of the electrical stimulation that the device provided, said Susan Harkema, a specialist in neurological rehab at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center (KSCIRC), who led the new study.
“One of the things this research shows is that there is more potential for spinal cord injury patients to recover even without this electrical stimulation,” she said in an interview. “Today, patients are not given rehab because they are not considered ‘good investments.’ We should rethink what they’re offered, because rehabilitation can drive recovery for many more than are receiving it.”
The research built on the case of a single paralyzed patient that Harkema’s team reported in 2011. College baseball star Rob Summers had been injured in a hit-and-run accident in 2006, paralyzing him below the neck.