Reversing Paralysis

USA Today Logo2

‘THERE IS HOPE’ Reversing paralysis

Device restores some function for 4 men with spinal injuries

Special for USA TODAY by Karen Weintraub

Paralysis may not last forever. In a “staggering” experiment, researchers at the University of Louisville and the University of California-Los Angeles restored voluntary movement to four men who were told they would never move their legs again.

The finding, published online today by the journal Brain, could transform the lives of more than 1.2 million Americans who lack control over their lower limbs.

“The message here is that patients with spinal cord injury may no longer necessarily say it’s a sentence of complete, permanent paralysis,” said Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the federal agency that helped fund the research. “Spinal cord injury is devastating, but now there is hope.”

By coursing electrical current through the four men’s spines, the research team appears to have “dialed up” signals between the brain and legs that were believed to be completely lost.

All four men, after being paralyzed for two to four years, can lift their legs, flex their ankles and support their own weight while standing, though only when the device embedded under their skin is turned on. In a response that shocked researchers, all four have regained bladder and bowel control, sexual function and the ability to regulate their blood pressure and body temperature — even when the epidural stimulation device is not running.

Kent Stephenson says he has his life back. “At the age of 22, my doctors were telling me, ‘Here’s a wheelchair, get used to it,’ ” said Stephenson of Mount Pleasant, Texas, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a motocross accident in 2009. “(Now) I feel like I’m better than I was. … I can pursue something in life.”

Stephenson was the second to receive epidural stimulation. The first patient, Rob Summers, received a lot of attention in 2011 when the record of his stunning recovery was published. Claudia Angeli, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, said no one was sure whether it was a fluke.

Hooked up to the machine and given the command to try to lift his leg, Stephenson surprised everyone by voluntarily raising his left leg from the bed.

It’s too soon to know whether everyone with a spinal cord injury will improve, but, as Angeli notes, “with four out of four, it’s a very good sign.” The team is recruiting four more volunteers.

“Changes we see here are really staggering,” said Peter T. Wilderotter, of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which helped fund the study. “It’s truly a breakthrough.”