Paraplegic Man Walks After Medical Breakthrough

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Hallelujah on high, this week has been a windfall of medical leaps and bounds! First, this guy voluntarily had his hand amputated so he could be fitted with a bionic limb, and now this. Televangelists"healers", take note.

In what's being touted as a breakthrough for people suffering from spinal-cord injuries, a man paralyzed from the chest down has regained the ability to stand and take his first hesitant steps in four years, thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Louisville, UCLA and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

The team used an array of stimulating electrodes implanted into 25-year-old Rob Summers (photo), who suffered a complete motor injury at the C7/T1 level of the spinal cord after a hit-and-run accident in 2006. The electrodes mimicked signals the brain usually sends to initiate movement and provided direct electrical stimulation to the lower part of the spinal cord that controls movement of the hips, knees, ankles and toes.

Rather than bypassing the nervous system to directly stimulate the leg muscles, the electrodes stimulated the spinal cord's own neural network that, when combined with sensory input from the legs, was able control the muscle and joint movements necessary to stand and and step with assistance on a treadmill.

“This procedure has completely changed my life," said Summers in a University of Louisville press release. "For someone who, for four years was unable to move a toe, to have the freedom and ability to stand on my own is the most amazing feeling."

The unprecedented event was the result of 30 years of research to find potential clinical therapies for paralysis. The study was published Thursday in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

“This is a breakthrough. It opens up a huge opportunity to improve the daily functioning of these individuals,” concluded lead author of The Lancet article, Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville's Department of Neurosurgery. “But we have a long road ahead.”

Previously, the electrode stimulation technology was shown only to work in animals. With this study being the successful in humans, researchers say their findings must be replicated in more patients and many technological questions must be answered before this epidural stimulation can be considered for wider use.

Credit: Rob Summers