Paralysed man stands again

after electrical implant

May 20, 2011 – 1:21PM

After Rob Summers was paralysed below the chest in a car accident in 2006, his doctors told him he would never stand again. They were wrong.

Despite intensive physical therapy for three years, Mr Summers’s condition had not improved. So in 2009, doctors implanted an electrical stimulator on to the lining of his spinal cord to try waking up his damaged nervous system.

Within days, Mr Summers, 25, 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.

Walking again ... Rob SummersA few steps … Rob Summers. Photo: AFP / Courtesy of Rob Summers

“It was the most incredible feeling,” said Mr Summers, of Portland, Oregon. “After not being able to move for four years, I thought things could finally change.”

Still, despite his renewed optimism, Mr Summers cannot stand when he is not in a therapy session with the stimulator turned on, and he normally gets around in a wheelchair. Doctors are limiting his use of the device to several hours at a time.

His case is described in a paper published today in the journal Lancet. The research was paid for by the US National Institutes of Health and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Building up his strength ... Rob Summers.Building up his strength … Rob Summers. Photo: AFP / Courtesy of Rob Summers

For years, certain people with incomplete spinal cord injuries, who have some control of their limbs, have experienced some improvement after experiments to stimulate their muscles electrically. But such progress had not been seen before in someone with a complete spinal cord injury.

“This is not a cure, but it could lead to improved functionality in some patients,” said Gregoire Courtine, head of experimental neurorehabilitation at the University of Zurich. He was not connected to Mr Summers’s case.

He cautioned that Mr Summers’s recovery so far had not make any difference to his daily life and that more research was needed to help paralysed people regain enough mobility to make a difference in their normal routines.

Before the accident ... Rob Summers.Before the accident … Rob Summers. Photo: AFP / Courtesy of Rob Summers

The electrical stimulator surgeons implanted on to Mr Summers’s spinal cord is usually used to relieve pain and can cost up to $US20,000.

Mr Summers’s doctors implanted it lower than normal, on to the very bottom of his vertebrae.

“The stimulator sends a general signal to the spinal cord to walk or stand,” said Susan Harkema, rehabilitation research director at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre in Louisville and the Lancet study’s lead author.

Dr Harkema and her colleagues were surprised that Mr Summers was able to move his legs voluntarily. “That tells us we can access the circuitry of the nervous system, which opens up a whole new avenue for us to address paralysis,” Dr Harkema said. She said prescribing drugs might also speed recovery.

John McDonald, director of the International Centre for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, said the strategy could be adopted rapidly for the 10 to 15 per cent of paralysed patients who might benefit. He was not connected to the Summers case.

“There is no question we will do this for our patients,” Dr McDonald said.

He added that, since the electrical stimulators were already approved for pain relief, it should not be difficult to study them to help some patients regain movement.

For now, Mr Summers does about two hours a day of physical therapy.

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

AP  Sourced & published by Henry Sapiecha

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