A novel therapy that involves electrical stimulation of the spinal cord has resulted in four individuals with paraplegia now being able to voluntarily move previously paralyzed muscles. The study is a continuation of a 2009 pilot trial on spinal stimulation and physical rehabilitation and is funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.

Claudia Angeli, PhD, from the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center and colleagues, recruited three patients with complete motor paralysis. Two of the patients also had some sensation below the injury and one had complete sensory paralysis. The patient with complete motor and sensory paralysis was intended to be a baseline patient, but within the first week of stimulation via surgical implant, he experienced voluntary movement of his previously paralyzed muscles. For patients with complete motor and sensory paralysis, the pathway sending information regarding sensation from the legs to the brain is disturbed; the research team had not expected that the therapy would be effective even if the sensory pathway was not intact. The other two patients had similar outcomes.

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All patients, including the individual in the pilot study, were able to synchronize leg, ankle, and toe movements in unison with the rise and fall of a wave displayed on a computer screen. Three of the four patients were able to alter the leg flexed force that varied based on three different auditory cues. All four of the participants had been paralyzed for more than two years.

Current research is also exploring the use of epidural stimulation to help patients with paralysis of the upper limbs and the development of transcutaneous spinal stimulation. Next steps include a study to determine whether the improvement is the result of the physical rehabilitation or the stimulation effects over time.

For more information visit NIH.gov.