A man paralysed from the waist down has moved his legs for the first time after doctors inserted an electrode sending an electrical current to the spinal cord.
The electrode is connected to a computer-controlled device under the skin in the 28-year-old patient’s abdomen.
The electrical stimulation on his spinal cord, along with intense physical therapy, enabled him to move his legs, stand and make step-like motions for the first time in three years.
The device enables the patient’s brain to send signals to the motor neurons in the spinal cord, enabling him to create movement.
Mayo Clinic researchers, who tested the pioneering treatment, say these results offer further evidence that a combination of this technology and rehabilitation may help patients with spinal cord injuries regain control.
Previous research has been conducted in this area, but this is the first time a patient has been able to intentionally control previously paralysed functions within the first two weeks of stimulation.
‘We’re really excited, because our results went beyond our expectations,’ says neurosurgeon Kendall Lee, principal investigator and director of Mayo Clinic’s Neural Engineering Laboratory.
‘These are initial findings, but the patient is continuing to make progress.’
The patient, who has not been named, injured his spinal cord in the middle of his back three years ago.
He was diagnosed with a motor complete spinal cord injury, meaning he could not move or feel anything below the middle of his torso.
The man underwent 22 weeks of physical therapy, involving three training sessions a week, to prepare his muscles. Then he had surgery to implant an electrode in the epidural space near the spinal cord below the injured area.
After a three-week recovery period following the operation, the patient resumed physical therapy with stimulation settings adjusted to enable movements.
In the first two weeks, he was able to stand independently using his arms on support bars and make step-like motions while lying on his side and standing with partial support.
The Mayo Clinic received permission from the US Food and Drug Administration to allow them to use the electrode off-label.
Researchers believe the data suggest that people with discomplete spinal cord injuries may be candidates for epidural stimulation therapy.
‘This has really set the tone for our post-surgical rehabilitation – trying to use that function the patient recovered to drive even more return of abilities,’ says Kristin Zhao, co-principal investigator and director of Mayo Clinic’s Assistive and Restorative Technology Laboratory.
The Mayo researchers worked closely with The University of California, Los Angeles on this study, which replicates earlier research done at the University of Louisville.
Gregory Gores, executive dean of research at the Mayo Clinic, said: ‘While these are early results, it speaks to how Mayo Clinic researchers relentlessly pursue discoveries and innovative solutions that address the unmet needs of patients.
‘These teams highlight Mayo Clinic’s unique culture of collaboration, which brings together scientists and physician experts who work side by side to accelerate scientific discoveries into critical advances for patient care.’