Scientific advances in many areas are moving just as quickly as in technology. In fact, the sectors often overlap. Recently, medicine and electronics came together to help people with spinal cord injuries that thought they were permanently paralysed, to walk again. To help you gain a better understanding, we’ve put together a Q and A so that you can gain a little more insight into the treatment.
What Exactly is the Treatment?
Paraplegics who have lost control of their lower limbs due to spinal cord injuries have an electrode implanted into their spine. This is controlled by a device implanted under the skin of his abdomen, which is operated wirelessly. The activated electrode sends stimulation to the damaged area of the spine.
How Does it Work?
Experts are still not entirely sure what happens during the electrical stimulation. One theory is that the electrode signals amplify residual neural messages that are still coming through, but are too weak to be felt on their own. The spinal cord is able to relearn its functions, to a degree.
Is There Anything Else Involved?
A 40-week intensive physical therapy regime also needs to be completed, as well as regular exercises thereafter. These can be very challenging, but patients can reward themselves afterwards – with a few spins of their favourite pokies game, their favourite meal, or something else to keep them motivated.
Is it Permanent?
So far, it seems that the improvements that are made are permanent if people work to maintain the new skills that their spines have learned. Unfortunately, as soon as the continuous current is switched off, the abilities are lost.
How Was it Discovered?
Spinal stimulation was originally developed to help with pain. In 2014 Professor Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville noticed that a few of the paraplegic patients her team was treating with the stimulation could move their legs, wiggle their toes, and stand for brief periods.
Dr Kendall Lee, a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic, wanted to see if the results could be replicated. He found a willing test subject in Jered Chinnock, a young man who had been paralysed in a 2013 snowboarding accident.
Two years after the operation, and after more than 100 physical therapy sessions, Chinnock can stand unaided and has been able to walk more than 100 metres in a single stretch. As Dr Lee has explained with obvious excitement, this gives new hope to individuals facing paralysis.
Is Everyone Successful?
Patients who have undergone this procedure have had varying levels of success. Harkema’s team worked with four more paralysed volunteers, and published the results on 24 September 2018 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Two were not able to take independent steps, while participants Jeff Marquis and Kelly Thomas both managed to do this.
What are the Risks?
Further damage could be done to the spine, and in Harkema’s recent study one subject fractured a hip. This happened even while properly supported during exercise and may be due to the body acclimatising to new electronic signals.
What’s Next for this Research?
Studies on a much larger scale are required. Experts need to understand why the stimulations help, and which patients will benefit. With more refinement and understanding, it could be possible to help implant recipients gain even more mobility.
Could There be Other Applications?
Aside from continuing to improve paraplegics’ prospects of walking, further research in this area might help those who have lost the function of their arms. Promise has already been shown in improving the sexual, bladder and bowel functions of paralysis victims.
How is Jered Chinnock Now?
Chinnock remains determined to be independent, and perhaps one day to not even need his walking frame. While he does understand how far he has come, and keeps his focus on his next short-term recovery goals, this is understandable. And in light of the fact that a few years ago walking at all was unimaginable, now it also seems possible.