Severe injuries to the spinal cord damage the nerves and, in many cases, result in paralysis. Although a small portion of nerves remains intact, the signals they carry are too weak to move the legs or support the body weight.
In the past, there wasn’t a way to help this situation leaving the person unable to walk. However, scientists have been able to help a couple of patients walk short distances on crutches. Researchers in Switzerland utilized electrical stimulation to help these patients walk after more than six years, ever since their accident put them in wheelchairs.
The doctors believe that a crucial factor of this triumph was to coincide the timing of the pulses with natural movement signals that the patients’ brains were still sending. Interestingly, electrical stimulation appears to have strengthened the nerve connections formed by the survivors of the injuries, improving the men’s muscle control.
These patients were 28-year-old David Mzee and 35-year-old Gert-Jan Oskam. Mzee was a gymnast who got paralyzed in a gymnastics accident in 2010. After intensive rehabilitation at a paraplegic center in Zurich, he was able to regain some control of his right leg as well as his upper body. It was predicted that he would never regain complete control of his right leg. However, after five months of training with electrical stimulation, he was able to take a few steps without assistance.
Oskam had a traffic accident while he was cycling from work to his home in 2011. Previously unable to walk, he can now take a few steps outside with crutches and believes he will soon walk independently. “In the near future, I should be able to have a BBQ standing on my own,” Oskam said.
According to doctors, they beamed electrical pulses into their spines. These beams stimulated their leg muscles as they used a supportive harness on a treadmill to practice walking. Using electrical stimulation triggers plasticity in the cells. When the brain was trying to stimulate, doctors stimulated the nerves simultaneously, which triggered the growth of new nerve connections.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that the treatment was a cure for paralysis. Both of the patients still use wheelchairs for their daily lives while continuing to improve. However, the doctors believe that precisely timed electrical stimulation can help recover some of the lost movement of patients when they suffer from devastating injuries. Grégoire Courtine, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, said: “The big challenge is whether it actually changes their life.”
Electrical stimulation is an important first step. The key is to apply electrical stimulation close to the time of the accident when the potential for recovery is higher.
The scientists used wireless electrodes implanted in the lower back of the patients to help people with paraplegia walk by using electrical stimulation to activate the necessary leg muscles in the right order. You can read about the reported details in Nature and Nature Neuroscience.
Mzee, Oksam, and Sebastian Tobler, who had a more severe spinal injury, could all walk with electrical stimulation only after a week if supported by a harness. Tobler cannot walk without stimulation, so he uses the system for training on the treadmill and for off-road biking on a tricycle he has adapted.
Other separate teams declared that other patients managed to take several steps with implants. These implants beamed continuous electrical stimulation to their spinal cords. It is not clear why none of the patients could walk when the electrical pulses were removed, perhaps because continuous stimulation does not encourage the growth of new nerve connections.
In another article in Nature Neuroscience, Chet Moritz from the University of Washington mentioned that many people can benefit from an innovative combination of spinal stimulation, electrical stimulation, and rehabilitation to regain the ability to walk and control their paralyzed limbs. This combination of stimulation and rehabilitation can actually help direct the plasticity and healing of the nervous system around the injury.
In terms of treating paralysis, researchers and scientists should consider the results of these three independent pieces of research as a breakthrough to help people with paralysis. Paralysis, which was deemed incurable until very recently, is about to make a huge leap forward in spinal cord injury research.
Electrical stimulation has proven itself useful in the case of Mzee, Oksam, and Sebastian. Scientists used electrical stimulation to beam electrical pulses into their spines to stimulate their leg nerves and muscles. This treatment made them able to walk on a treadmill with the use of a supportive harness. Using implants to beam continuous electrical stimulation to the patients’ spinal cords is a giant leap forward in the field of spinal cord injury research.
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