The clinical potential for electrically triggering legs to move in paralyzed patients was thought to require implantable stimulators, but results from an exciting new study from UCLA have demonstrated otherwise. Five completely paralyzed men were able to perform walking movements with their legs, albeit lying down, thanks to externally worn transcutaneous stimulators. The devices were placed close to the spinal cord near the lower back of the patients who underwent weekly sessions for about four months to see how they respond to the therapy.
Initially in the study, the men moved their legs when strong electrical signals were delivered, but this motion was essentially involuntary. Yet, when they tried to help the neurostimulators, they managed to get their legs to move further apart during each step. After a few weeks, the motion became considerably more voluntary and the patients were able to swing their legs considerably further and precisely when they wanted to. This indicates that even though the men have complete paralysis, there are still neural connections that remain that are able to take on new functions requested by the body.
The patients also received the drug buspirone that acts like serotonin and which in the past has demonstrated considerable benefits for mice with spinal cord injuries. Toward the end of the study, amazingly the patients were able to move their legs on their own without the neurostimulators doing anything at all. Moreover, the range of this motion was on average the same as when they were dependent on the stimulators.
This is certainly exciting not only because cheap transcutaneous neurostimulators may be used in treating paralysis due to damaged spinal cords, but more importantly because there’s clear evidence that such patients may one day recover their natural walking ability thanks to these devices.
Here’s a quick, simple, but very moving video of paralyzed men voluntarily moving their own legs:
Study in Journal of Neurotrauma: Noninvasive Reactivation of Motor Descending Control after Paralysis…
Source: National Institutes of Health…