Electrical device helping paralyzed men move legs

  • Posted: Monday, April 21, 2014 7:40 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, April 21, 2014 7:41 a.m.
AP Photo/University of Louisville 
In this photo Kent Stephenson, the second person to undergo epidural stimulation of the spinal cord, voluntarily raises his leg while stimulated at the Human Locomotion Research Center laboratory, a part of the University of Louisvilleís Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, Frazier Rehab Institute, in Louisville Ky.
AP Photo/University of Louisville In this photo Kent Stephenson, the second person to undergo epidural stimulation of the spinal cord, voluntarily raises his leg while stimulated at the Human Locomotion Research Center laboratory, a part of the University of Louisvilleís Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, Frazier Rehab Institute, in Louisville Ky.

LONDON — Three years ago, doctors 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, suggesting their original success was no fluke.

Experts say it’s a promising development but warn that the experimental treatment isn’t a cure.

When the implanted device is activated, the men can wiggle their toes, lift their legs and stand briefly. But they aren’t able to walk and still use wheelchairs to get around.

In a new study published Tuesday in the British journal Brain, researchers gave an update on Rob Summers, of Portland, Ore., the first to try the treatment, and described successful results for all three of the other men who have tried it.

All had been paralyzed from below the neck or chest for at least two years from a spinal cord injury.

The study’s lead author, Claudia Angeli of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Research Center at the University of Louisville, said she believes the device’s zapping of the spinal cord helps it to receive simple commands from the brain, through circuitry that some doctors had assumed was beyond repair after severe paralysis.

Dustin Shillcox, 29, of Green River, Wyoming, was seriously injured in a car crash in 2010. Last year, he had the electrical device surgically implanted in his lower back in Kentucky. Five days later, he wiggled his toes and moved one of his feet for the first time.

Shillcox now practices moving his legs for about an hour a day at home in addition to therapy sessions in the lab, sometimes wearing a Superman T-shirt for inspiration.

He said it has given him more confidence and he feels more comfortable going out.

The study’s other two participants – Kent Stephenson of Mount Pleasant, Texas and Andrew Meas of Louisville, Kentucky have had similar results.

“I’m able to (make) these voluntary movements and it really changed my life,” Stephenson said. He said the electrical device lets him ride on an off–road utility vehicle all day with his friends and get out of the wheelchair.

The new study was paid for by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and others.

Experts said refining the use of electrical stimulators for people with paralysis might eventually prove more effective than standard approaches, including medicines and physical therapy.

“In the next five to 10 years, we may have one of the first therapies that can improve the quality of life for people with a spinal cord injury,” said Gregoire Courtine, a paralysis expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, who was not part of the study.

The National Institutes of Health is investing in more advanced stimulators that would better target the spinal cord as well as devices that might work on people who are paralyzed in their upper limbs.

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