Thanks to scientists and researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, four paralyzed men can now use their legs again. It’s all because of an electrical simulator implanted under the skin of the abdomen, about the size of a pacemaker, which connects to electrodes near the spinal cord. When the device is activated, it emits a low amount of electricity — that’s what makes the motion possible.
Scientists believe the signals may be retraining the damaged nerves to work in conjunction with the brain once again, a connection that effectively gets severed when paralysis sets in. For one of the men, Rob Summers, who was paralyzed after being struck by a hit-and-run driver while standing in his own driveway, the progress has been nothing short of miraculous.
“It has changed my life on a day-to-day basis,” Summers told NBC News. Summers had the implant placed inside his body in 2011 and was able to stand shortly after. Now, he exercises for hours every day in order to build back up the muscles that would have otherwise wasted away because of his paralysis. He can now feel light touches, like the wind upon his legs.
On a research level, the breakthroughs mean that one particular assumption about spinal cord injuries in the past might have been misguided. Scientists have long believed that in order to restore movement to the damaged nerves, they’d have to effectively regrow them. That’s where stem cells have played a big part in the discussion, despite their controversial overtones. The electronic implant instead suggests that there might exist some kind of pathway that can be used to connect the damaged portions back to the brain.
Some scientists aren’t as quick to label the progress these men have had as a solution just yet. John Donoghue runs the Brown Institute for Brain Science and has worked with stroke victims to help them restore functionality to their damaged limbs. As he told NPR this week, it’s not some kind of miracle cure for paralysis, but it’s a step in the right direction.
“Technology in the spine surgery arena is evolving at a rapid pace, and we at Artificial Disk Institute are up to speed on the latest technologies and treatments available to help cope with all types of spinal diseases and injuries,” says Dr. Mike Elkanich, MD at the Las Vegas, Nevada Artificial Disk Institute.
“Is this functional movement? Well, in a sense,” Donoghue said. “But to me, it’s pushing us in a direction to say that for people with damaged spinal cords there’s a way to get a small input to have a meaningful effect.”
It should be noted, too, that none of the four men have regained the ability to walk. But for a group of people who’ve been told they’ll never be able to feel their legs again, even baby steps are a gigantic improvement. Some might call it a miracle. It would be hard to argue the point.