Medical Breakthrough: Paraplegic Man Stands Up

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After being struck by a car in 2006, Rob Summers was given a grim prognosis: paralysis from the chest down and the possibility of never walking again. But five years later, he is able to stand on his own two feet unaided — thanks to an experimental treatment, whose success is giving hope to millions of patients with spinal-cord injuries.

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Summers, 25, is the first paralysis patient to undergo a combination of electrical stimulation to the spinal cord — delivered through a surgically implanted stimulation device — combined with intense rehabilitation. As part of a research project at the University of Louisville, Summers first underwent 26 months of intense motor training, in which therapists helped him practice trying to move his legs, before receiving the implant. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Mr. Summers then had surgery to implant a device with 16 electrodes placed on key parts of the spinal cord. With the device delivering constant electrical stimulation, Mr. Summers has been able to stand up using his own leg muscles while holding on to bars for support. He can remain standing, bearing his own weight for up to four minutes at a stretch, and take steps on a treadmill with assistance, according to the researchers.

“I didn’t move a toe for four years,” said Mr. Summers. “I stood up on the third day they turned the stimulator on,” he said. “There are not enough words to describe how I felt.”

Although he hasn’t regained the full ability to walk — and although the researchers working with him remain cautious, given that his is the only such success in the world — spine-injury experts call the results groundbreaking.

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With the stimulators on, doctors helped Summers to practice standing and moving his legs. Now he can pull himself up to standing position on his own, not to mention move his toes, ankles, knees and hips while being stimulated. He has also regained control of his bowels and bladder, and sexual function.

Experts say it’s too soon to tell whether the same combination stimulation-rehabilitation program will be able to help other patients (there are four others currently planned to receive it), or whether it will work in patients whose spinal cords have been completely severed. Summers’ spine was not. The stimulation from the implanted device (adapted from a device originally FDA-approved to control pain) excites the neurons in his spine, which allows them, even without getting input from the brain, to receive and respond to sensory information from the legs.

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Researchers still need to design a more sophisticated stimulation device specifically for spinal-cord injury, and the current findings need to be replicated in other patients. But experts say the results — if they hold up — may offer new treatment avenues for paralyzed patients. “It opens a whole new set of possibilities for patients, not just those recently injured but those who have been injured for months and years,” said study author Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville, at a press conference to announce the results.

The research was supported by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and is outlined in the journal Lancet.