Spinal Cord Repair: Paralyzed Man Surprises Scientists by Standing and Moving on His Own

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.

Spine-Center-9916-696x454 Andrew Meas was paralyzed after a motorcycle accident. University of Louisiana

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.

He said scientists used to think of electrical stimulation as a method of producing movement artificially until a few years ago, when they found that combining it with training, a patient could restore some voluntary control over their movements. This opened up the possibility that there could be longer lasting benefits from stimulation therapy.

450px-Blausen_0822_SpinalCord The spinal cord communicates messages from the brain to the rest of the body. BruceBlaus/CC

“What they’re showing here is that long term use of this can lead to changes that can manifest even when stimulator is not turned on,” Jackson tells Newsweek.

“It gives us an insight into the mechanisms of what’s going on. We still distinguish spinal cord damage as being complete or incomplete based on clinical assessment. What is becoming clear after a number of these studies is that a lesion considered clinically complete probably doesn’t mean anatomically complete. In many cases, there can be surviving connections that are present but are too weak to generate a movement.”

As a result of these findings, scientists have shown there may be connections left even when a spinal cord injury is considered complete. By combining electrical stimulation and intensive training, a lasting re-organization of spinal cord connections can be made that can result in the recovery of function.

“These are very exciting developments in the treatment of spinal cord injury,” Jackson says.

“There’s been a renewed optimism of spinal cord injury. For a long time we’ve been trying to regenerate injured cords through stem cells and so forth... but that has proved challenging. Now we have studies showing that in many cases there’s this potential to rewire surviving connections and produce some—not complete—meaningful improvement.”

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