Paralysis Recovery breakthrough in 2011

Research pioneers achieve a breakthrough in 2011 demonstrating paralysis recovery using spinal stimulation treatment.

Where it all started.

It started in the lab of Dr. Susan Harkema, a neurosurgeon at the University of Louisville who began using spinal stimulation treatment for paralysis recovery as a graduate fellow working with Dr. Reggie Edgerton in his neurorecovery laboratory at UCLA.

Until Dr. Harema surgically implanted an electrode array onto the dura sheath of Rob Summers spinal cord, spinal stimulation treatment for paralysis recovery had only been attempted on lab animals.

It worked.

Here are three news reports on this pioneering medical breakthrough published more than a decade ago.

From May 2011, Diane Sawyer (ABC News) reports the breakthrough in pararlysis recovery achieved using spinal stimulation by Drs. Edgerton and Harkema in a lab at the University of Louisville. For the first time ever, a person living with chronic complete paralysis regained volitional muscle control after years of paralysis.

By Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent
CNN | April 8, 2014

At her research lab at the University of Louisville, neuroscientist Susan Harkema turned her back to her study subject to check a reading on a computer screen.

“Hey Susie, look at this,” the patient called out to her. “I can move my toe!”

Startled, Harkema spun around. The purpose of her study, which involves sending electrical stimulation to broken spinal cords, was to learn more about nerve pathways, not to actually make patients move.

That must be an involuntary spasm, she thought. She asked the patient, Rob Summers, to lie down and close his eyes and follow her commands.

“Move your left toe,” she said to him – and he did. “Move your right toe,” she asked – and he did.

“Holy s***!” she yelled out loud.

By David W Freeman
CBS | May 20, 2011

“It was the most incredible feeling.” That’s Rob Summers describing what it was like to stand and take a few steps after years of paralysis. “After not being able to move for four years, I thought things could finally change.”

Summers, 25, was paralyzed below the chest in a car accident in 2006. Despite three years of physical therapy, his condition hadn’t improved. So in 2009, doctors implanted an electrical stimulator onto his spinal cord to try “waking up” his damaged nervous system.

Within days, Summers stood without help. Months later, he wiggled his toes, moved his knees, ankles and hips, and was able to take a few steps on a treadmill.

“My ultimate goal is to walk and run again,” Summers told the AP. “I believe anything is possible and that I will get out of my wheelchair one day.”

The results of this first successful application of spinal stimulation treatment with a person living with chronic complete paralysis were published in the medical journal Lancet by the research team lead by Drs. Harkema and Edgerton.

Listen here to Dr. Reggie Edgerton discuss the neurophysiological concepts behind the reactivation of motor activity in Rob Summers, a paraplegic man.

Here you can read the entire medical journal report about this amazing medical breakthrough in the treatment of paralysis.

By Susan Harkema, Yury Gerasimenko, Jonathan Hodes, Joel Burdick, Claudia Angeli, Yangsheng Chen, Christie Ferreira, Andrea Willhite, Enrico Rejc, Robert G Grossman, V Reggie Edgerton
Lancet | May 19 2011

Abstract. Background: Repeated periods of stimulation of the spinal cord and training increased the ability to control movement in animal models of spinal cord injury. We hypothesized that tonic epidural spinal cord stimulation can modulate spinal circuitry in human beings into a physiological state that enables sensory input from standing and stepping movements to serve as a source of neural control to undertake these tasks.

Methods: A 23-year-old man who had paraplegia from a C7-T1 subluxation as a result of a motor vehicle accident in July 2006, presented with complete loss of clinically detectable voluntary motor function and partial preservation of sensation below the T1 cord segment. After 170 locomotor training sessions over 26 months, a 16-electrode array was surgically placed on the dura (L1-S1 cord segments) in December 2009, to allow for chronic electrical stimulation. Spinal cord stimulation was done during sessions that lasted up to 250 min. We did 29 experiments and tested several stimulation combinations and parameters with the aim of the patient achieving standing and stepping.

Findings: Epidural stimulation enabled the man to achieve full weight-bearing standing with assistance provided only for balance for 4·25 min. The patient achieved this standing during stimulation using parameters identified as specific for standing while providing bilateral load-bearing proprioceptive input. We also noted locomotor-like patterns when stimulation parameters were optimised for stepping. Additionally, 7 months after implantation, the patient recovered supraspinal control of some leg movements, but only during epidural stimulation.
Interpretation: Task-specific training with epidural stimulation might reactivate previously silent spared neural circuits or promote plasticity. These interventions could be a viable clinical approach for functional recovery after severe paralysis.

Funding: National Institutes of Health and Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Read the full study report:

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