Apr 16, 2014 11:45 PM

Author: Office of Public Affairs

An experimental treatment on four paraplegic men has yielded results one Utah spine doctor calls amazing and gives hope to such patients that they might someday be able to move their legs and feet again.

“The amazing thing is they had been injured and it looked like they had no motor function below their injury levels for at least two years,” says Jeffrey Rosenbluth, MD, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Acute Rehabilitation program at the University of Utah Health Sciences Center. “To see some significant, purposeful motor function more than two years after injury is something no one has really seen before and that’s the excitement.”

At the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, the four patients received spinal cord implants capable of delivering precisely calibrated electrical impulses. According to the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the National Institutes of Health, the therapy, called epidural stimulation, allowed all four subjects to make voluntary movements like lifting a leg when the stimulator was used.

The four patients who received spinal cord implants at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center
The four patients who received spinal cord implants at the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center

The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, and was an expansion of research conducted on a single patient in 2009. The new results were published online in April in the journal Brain.

The fourth patient in the new study was Wyoming native Dustin Shillcox, who was injured in a rollover car crash in 2010 and spent more than three months at a University of Utah medical facility, according to The Green River Star.

Five days after receiving the implant, Shillcox wiggled his toes and moved one of his feet when the implant was activated, The Associated Press reports. “It was very exciting and emotional,” Shillcox told the AP. “It brought me a lot of hope.”

Rosenbluth explains that doctors who treat spinal cord-injury patients already knew that electrical stimulation delivered directly to a paralyzed muscle could help it move. What’s significant about this study, he says, is that the implant helps relay signals between the patient’s brain and lower extremities.

This gives renewed hope to the 200 to 250 Utah residents who become paralyzed every year, like Lizzy Pritchett, who is undergoing rehabilitation at Neuroworx in South Jordan, according to KSL.

These findings don’t yet mean people with paralysis will be able to give up their wheelchairs, but it’s a start, Peter Ellaway, an emeritus professor of physiology at Imperial College London, told the AP. “There is no miracle cure on the way,” he said. “This could certainly give paralyzed people more independence and it could still be a life-changer for them.”

spinal cord injury spine

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