It’s considered a breakthrough for modern medicine that spinal cord stimulation partly fixes paralysis and allows formerly disabled men to voluntarily move their legs. Ever since the first diagnosis, paralyzed people were never encouraged to have hope and advised to embrace and accept the fact that their bodies might never respond to them like they used to again.
Professor of neurobiology and neurosurgery, Reggie Edgarton, claims that saying as much has always been ridiculous and still is. His words were backed by the new discovery that non-invasive spinal cord stimulation (SCS) has given five men the ability to move their legs again, after being likely given the same discouraging speech.
The researchers gave five paralyzed men, aged between 19 and 56 years old, 45-minute long weekly sessions of spinal cord stimulation for a period of 18 weeks to test if any progress was made. Early on treatments meant similar stimulation, but most implied surgically placed implants at the base of the spine, which sent a constant flow of pulses. Four paralyzed men regained the ability to walk because of it in a study by Edgarton himself in 2011 and 2014.
The new treatment constitutes of a technique called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a non-invasive procedure that implies placing the electrode against the patient’s lower back. It then sends stimulation through the skin to the spinal cord, while the men’s legs were suspended in braces in order to eliminate gravity’s resistance from the equation.
At first, the treatment only resulted in involuntary movements, but after a few weeks, the men received the ability to extend the distance between their legs and flex their muscles. They essentially doubled their capability for voluntary movement after only 4 sessions of SCS.
However, in order to further boost the treatment, within the last four weeks of the eighteen week-long study, the patients were also given a twice daily dose of a drug called buspirone, an anti-anxiety medicine that mimics the neurotransmitter serotonin. It has proved itself successful in causing voluntary movement in similarly partially paralyzed mice.
All five men had been deprived of all their locomotors functions for two years before the study and it was believed that the brain might’ve lost that crucial connection with the limbs which prompts movement. However, the study showed otherwise.
Researchers observed that the connection was not lost, only dormant. The SCS treatment has simply “reawakened networks” and rewired the brain to respond to the functions once believed it has forgotten.
While the study and treatment will certainly require more research and time to fully develop, it’s an astounding step forward toward a time when paralysis might no longer be a life sentence.
Image source: iflscience.com