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Four paralyzed men who underwent an experimental treatment involving electric current were able to move their limbs and regain some control of their bowel and bladder function.
The revolutionary new treatment is being hailed as "groundbreaking" by experts. They say the results of the study, which will be published today in the journal Brain, are an important first step toward an eventual cure for spinal cord injury.
Researchers say the electrical device's "zapping" of the spinal cord helps it receive simple commands from the brain — even though doctors had long assumed those connections were beyond repair.
While the patients in the study still use wheelchairs and are only able to move their limbs while the electrical current is in place, they say that the ability to once again make voluntary movements has changed their lives.
Cladia Angeli, who is lead author of the study and a senior researcher at the Human Locomotion Research Center at Frazier Rehab, discusses the new treatment with Here & Now's Robin Young.
Interview Highlights: Cladia Angeli
On her colleague's surprise seeing the very first patient move his toes
"It was actually extremely surprising because initially the study was to see if we could follow some of the successes that were shown in the animal model where rats were able to generate some independent steps and able to stand as well. So we never thought about asking these individuals if they could move their legs through any of the process that was involved in the research. So it was actually extremely surprising because it was that first participant that actually found out on his own that he had regained some voluntary activity."
Why stimulating the spinal cord, not the brain, is allowing the patent to move
"It's a little bit of a change in the thinking that the brain has to put together all the details of the movement. But what we're doing with the stimulation is we're stimulating the spinal cord and getting it ready — awakening it, if you would — to receive a simple command from the brain to intend to move. So we believe that all that is needed from the brain perspective is a very simple intent to move a leg, and then the spinal cord will take over all the details of how to reorganize the neurons and the inner neurons to generate the movement itself."
Is this changing the thinking on spinal cords damaged 'beyond repair'?
"Absolutely. So when the injury happens, it's located in a very small portion of the spinal cord, but the rest of the spinal cord is intact. So when we actually place the electrode, we place it over the lower aspect of the spinal cord which is intact, and by stimulating we can actually access those inner neurons and neurons that are still healthy and make them kind of remember what it was that they needed to do, in terms of generation of a specific movement."
How soon before this can get to more people?
"We're hoping to move this to clinical translation in the near future. The technology is our current limitation and we're working in terms of trying to improve that as well, but we do have that objective in mind, to move this to the clinic as quickly as possible so other individuals can benefit from this type of therapy."
This segment aired on April 8, 2014.