A man who was paralyzed following an extremely severe spinal cord injury has regained the ability to stand and move his limbs independently and without the need for electrical stimulation—much to the surprise of scientists working with him.
The 32-year-old had been involved in a motorcycle accident during which he suffered from a complete spinal cord injury—meaning he had a total lack of motor function below the level of injury. The spinal cord connects the brain to almost every part of the body, so when it is damaged instructions—like telling the legs to move—cannot be communicated.
After 21 months of rehabilitation, the patient could not walk, stand or move his legs but he then enrolled in a clinical trial involving the use of spinal cord epidural stimulation (scES). This is an approach to treating people with spinal cord injuries where a device is used to send electrical signals to motor neurons. Over the course of this study, he and three other participants had regained the ability to stand and move their lower limbs when the sdES device was activated.
At the end of the trial, the man was selected to continue on with a program of rehabilitation, taking part in intensive training for 44 months. This involved the use of scES at home and in the laboratory focusing on three areas—standing, hip and knee flexing
The latest findings, published in Scientific Reports, show how at the end of the program he could stand without the scES device and move his legs voluntarily. This “unexpected recovery,” the authors say, indicates that the brain continues to adapt to try to allow for movement—and could mean there is potential for new treatments of the human nervous system after complete spinal cord injury.
Andrew Jackson, Professor of Neural Interfaces at Newcastle University, U.K., who was not involved in the study, said the findings were exciting and that it could help change accepted knowledge about spinal cord injury