Study: Paralyzed individuals benefit from spinal cord stimulation

Jul 29 2011
In some cases of injury, spine surgery fails to restore mobility, and affected individuals are typically confined to a wheelchair and have to undergo extensive physical therapy to keep their muscles from atrophying.

However, this type of rehabilitation also has limited usefulness, so researchers have been trying to develop more effective methods. For some time now, electrical spinal cord stimulation has been considered a promising option.

Earlier this year, journal Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair reported that Canadian researchers successfully used functional electrical stimulation (FES) to allow study participants with spinal cord paralysis to pick up and hold objects.

FES relies on low-intensity bursts of electricity generated by a small electric stimulator to spur muscle activity. In this experiment, which involved 21 patients, it was shown to provide better results than occupational therapy. In fact, the group that only received traditional therapy showed progress at a rate that was three times slower than the individuals who were given an hour of stimulation therapy daily, in addition to regular occupational therapy five times a week.

The researchers followed up with some of the FES patients six months after they completed the study, and found that all of them had better hand function than on the day they finished the initial experiment.

"This [indicates] that by stimulating peripheral nerves and muscles, you can actually 'retrain' the brain," says lead author of the study, Milos R. Popovic, PhD, a senior scientist at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and head of the Rehabilitation Engineering Laboratory.

Similar work has been conducted in the U.S., where CNN reported earlier this year on a young man from Oregon who was paralyzed following a spinal cord injury five years ago. Working with researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles, he was able to stand on his own for a short period of time and move his toes, ankles, knees and hips when an implant he carried was sending electrical messages directly to his spine.

By some estimates, more than 250,000 Americans are living with a spinal cord injury and there is currently no way to completely reverse the damage.