Sebastian Tobler's spinal cord injury was so severe that doctors were not able to offer him a walking rehabilitation program, so he built himself a recumbent hand tricycle - which has since had electrical stimulation technology added. It is the third study of its kind, the previous two conducted by researchers at the University of Louisville and the Mayo Clinic. This treatment also helped in curing and growing the nerves which were damaged in the spinal cord.
Every good thing can be improved, so research about spinal cord electrical stimulation continues.
"Cure is a very strong word, and this is not a cure", Oxley said. In a second paper also published today in Nature Neuroscience, Courtine's group found that the latter type of stimulation might disrupt a person's sense of where their legs are in relation to their body, or what's known as proprioception.
"This little device that is an impulse generator is giving impulses to the electrode that is located on the spinal cord", said Lausanne neurosurgeon Dr. Jocelyne Bloch in an interview with CBS News. The stimulators then delivered targeted electric pulses in time with the patients' walking gait.
When the stimulation was fed in pulses that worked in conjunction with the proprioceptive system, patients achieved remarkable improvement in their ability to move previously paralyzed legs in coordination, the researchers said. That suggests the stimulation might be rewriting the connections between the brain and spinal cord, Moritz says. After a few months of treatment all three participants were able to move their limbs without the implant turned on. This is thanks to new rehabilitation protocols that combine targeted electrical stimulation of the lumbar spinal cord and weight-assisted therapy. Courtine thinks the spine might be regenerating nerve fibers that cross the injury like new lanes being built around a broken highway section. An electrical device inserted around the spine helps boost signals from their brain to their legs, and helps damaged nerves in the spinal cord to regrow.
"These neural pathways are by and large still intact and viable", says Chad Bouton, the director of the Center for Bioelectronic Medicine at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in NY, who wasn't involved in the latest study. He said that he came to the trial with his daughter and David talked to her by looking her in eyes saying that David would walk before her. All patients involved in the study recovered voluntary control of leg muscles that had been paralyzed for many years. Something else also happened to the patients during the study, Bloch says.
The promising treatment shows that the brain and spinal cord can re-establish a connection and people can regain some control over parts of the body they had lost use of. Three patients have retained motor functions below their injuries. 'One patient started sweating much more, ' Bloch says. 'The healing has not only been for walking, ' she says.
He said that after two days, the new movement became nearly natural to the subjects and within a week, they were able to walk with limited assistance. 'Someone has to hold me for security reasons, although I should be able to have a barbecue standing on my own in the near future, ' he said in a written statement.