In the 1990s, physiologist Dr. V. Reggie Edgerton met Christopher Reeve at a science convention. It was a few years after the actor best known for playing Superman had been severely injured during a horse riding competition, and Edgerton saw before him America’s icon of invincibility confined to a wheelchair.
“It’s urgent,” Reeve told him. “Don’t just come into the lab and think of it as another day of research. Every day for us is urgent.’”
Few scientists understand this better than Edgerton. For nearly 40 years, he has been studying how neural networks in the spinal cord can regain voluntary control of movement after paralysis. Now, he and a team of scientists at UCLA have developed a treatment procedure that could perhaps change the lives of paraplegics.
After four weeks of noninvasive electrical spinal cord stimulation, five men who are completely paralyzed in their lower body were able to move their legs again after years of immobility.
“The strategy, called transcutaneous stimulation, delivers electrical current to the spinal cord by way of electrodes strategically placed on the skin of the lower back,” reported the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund the study. “This expands to nine the number of completely paralyzed individuals who have achieved voluntary movement while receiving spinal stimulation, though this is the first time the stimulation was delivered non-invasively. Previously it was delivered via an electrical stimulation device surgically implanted on the spinal cord … Surprisingly, by the end of the study … the men were able to move their legs with no stimulation at all.”
“These encouraging results provide continued evidence that spinal cord injury may no longer mean a life-long sentence of paralysis and support the need for more research,” said Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at NIH.
In the initial seconds of having regained voluntary control, they didn’t say anything, Edgerton told the Washington Post.
“They can’t believe it,” said Edgerton, who performed the study in 45-minute sessions over the course of 18 weeks. “They’re wondering, ‘Is this really happening? How did I do that?’”
The patients sat in front of a mirror, watching wide-eyed as their lower bodies seemed in tune with their brains for the first time since their injuries. The men, aged 19 to 56, were paralyzed during athletic activities and a car accident.
The method works by changing the excitability of certain networks within the spinal cord, amplifying the frayed connections like a hearing aid. After the first month of the study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma, patients were given doses of buspirone. The drug is traditionally used to treat anxiety disorders, but was revealed to enhance the effects of the stimulation.
The procedure offers an equally effective and less expensive alternative to the surgical epidural stimulation that Edgerton’s team developed last year. On the market, this noninvasive treatment would come at one-tenth of the cost of surgery, which carries a $100,000 price tag.
Edgerton, who stressed that the stimulation must be paired with constant rehabilitation exercises, said he hopes to make it clinically available in a couple of years, and ultimately accessible to patients who want to perform the treatment on themselves at home. His team has already embarked on a new study on whether a similar approach can be applied towards helping paraplegics regain the ability to walk or even run.
But for the time being, the five men who thrilled in having control over their long-motionless legs will have to wait to experience the feeling again. It’s a common, bittersweet reality among medical study participants, as they must often return to their previous lives after undergoing revolutionary treatments not yet on the market.
“We are rather severely criticized for providing hope,” Edgerton said solemnly. “But I don’t feel reticent at all about it. I actually think they should all have hope.”
He continued, “The way I look at it is, I don’t think we’ve come close to maximizing the potential that remains after severe spinal cord injury. I fully expect that there’s going to be greater and greater improvement. Have we accomplished that now? I think we’re far from it.”