Electrical impulses sent to a paralyzed man's spinal cord allow him to walk again, researchers say. Rob Summers, 25, can voluntarily move his feet and hips and walk on a treadmill with support, in what could be a major breakthrough for the treatment of paralysis.
The research team, led by Dr. Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville, Ky., stressed that the treatment is not a cure for paralysis and that it worked with just one patient in one trial. But researchers not involved in the study say it is promising — one UK doctor told the BBC it was "mind-blowing."
The findings appear to show that the legs and spinal cord, not the brain, are in control of movement. That means interruption of messages from the brain may not preclude paralyzed patients from walking again — they would just need new electrical signals to stimulate the spinal cord.
Summers appeared in various media outlets Friday to discuss the research.
Weeks after winning the College World Series with Oregon State University in 2006, Summers was hit by a drunk driver, suffering spinal cord damage that paralyzed him from the chest down. Neuroscientists implanted 16 electrodes in his spine, and sent electrical impulses to his lower spinal cord, mimicking the signals normally sent by the brain to initiate movement. Summers was suspended over a treadmill while the signals were transmitted to his spine. Writing in the British medical journal The Lancet, researchers say the spinal cord's own neural network, combined with sensory information from his legs, is able to to control muscle and joint movement.
Summers trained for two years with a treadmill and physical therapists moving his legs to help him stand and walk.
V. Reggie Edgerton of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said sensory information is sent via neural networks in the legs directly to the spinal cord. The sensory feedback allows Summers to balance himself, bear his own weight and take steps over various speeds and directions, Edgerton said in a news release.
In a statement, Summers said the treatment has changed his life.
"For someone who for four years was unable to even move a toe, to have the freedom and ability to stand on my own is the most amazing feeling," he said.
He was left with some sensation below the chest, so it's not clear whether the treatment would work for spinal cord injury patients who experience no sensation. What's more, Summers was an athlete in excellent physical condition before his injury, which could have helped his rehabilitation.
Still, his doctors hope that someday, patients with spinal cord injuries could use a portable electrical stimulation unit to move independently once again.
The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.
Truly amazing. To think that the disconnected nerves in lower part spine actually coordinate the muscles in order to walk instead of just acting as relays is fascinating.
Also.... star trek did it first.
amazing. what if we combined this tech and the bionic hand tech? we could accomplish wonders!!!
I read it, but I'm not sure I understand 100%, so the electrodes in his back sent signals to the muscle "through" the nerves, to stimulate the muscle in the same way a taser will constrict muscle, or did they just send the signals to the nerves, and the nerves handled the rest?
I've read three articles on this story that aren't all word for word quotes of the same press release. I'm almost certain that the electrodes bridge the gap in his spinal cord, only not both ways. Meaning it acts like a repeater for signals from the brain but cannot hope to reproduce all the sensory feedback from the legs. I think. The biggest news seems to be that so much of the brains control function isn't actually done by the brain.
Twenty boner remedies later and our scientist are getting around to assisting human beings who need it the most this is very impressive and utopian
What is not discussed is the elctrodes, the connections. The big deal is that they hooked this dude up to a machine, kinda. This opens us up to a world of possibilities for VR! Finally, my days of working from a sailboat might just be on the horizon...
@itismethisguy -> Yes, I'm sure this tech could help you not be premature also! ;)
I can't wait for this to be mass produced, soon we will reach the singularity and could possibly eradicate illness. All in due time of course.
People who haven't studied neurology vastly underestimate how much work the spinal cord does. Spinal reflexes and spinal cord controls are a big part of all kinds of movement. In animals it's even more so-- horses, for example, barely control their gait with their brain at all. The brain only says where they're going, and the spinal cord does most of the patterning of how they get there. It's one reason that certain breeds of horse like gaited breeds (Tennesee walkers, etc.) and cutting horses can move and walk in ways that other horses are physically incapable of doing.
What I'm waiting for is for robotics experts to really understand this info and start decentralizing processing for robot movement more. It just isn't efficient to ask a central processor to handle every little reflex and reaction when you want a robot to be able to catch itself with quick reflexes when it slips or falls. Every leg should have it's own mini-processor that can act on its own as well as integrating with the core processor. Hey, that's how biological systems do it, and they do a darn good job that way!