Four men paralysed below the waist for years have regained some movement in their legs thanks to an innovative electrical device implanted into their spines, based on research conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Louisville, Kentucky.
The device is an array of epidural electrodes powered by a small battery which was implanted into the subjects spinal cord.
When the patient turns it on electrical impulses are sent out which mimic the signals which the brain transmits. They in turn engage the neural network to direct the muscle movements.
“What we see today with these four individuals now being able to have voluntary motion and voluntary control of their limbs and involuntary control of functions like bladder and bowel is very exciting. It is a milestone. It’s not the end of the research,” explained Dr. Roderic Pettigrew.
The electrical stimulation made the lower spinal cord more excitable so it was able to respond when the messages did arrive from the brain.
Kent Stephenson took part in the trial.
“I’ve also seen some benefits for the stimulation training even when its turned off. Like there’s been huge improvements in my bowel, bladder and sexual function,” he said.
The US National Institute of Health is investing in more advanced stimulators which would better target the spinal cord as well as devices that might work on people who are paralysed in their upper limbs.