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Implant Helps Paralyzed Man Walk Again

Implant Helps Paralyzed Man Walk Again

Electronically stimulating pacemaker-type device helps paralyzed man walk again…

Doctors at the TIRR Research Center in Houston have performed a radical new treatment that has allowed a man paralyzed from the waist down, to stand and even take steps without support.

Rob Summers was just 20 years old when one night whilst taking his gym bag out of his car, a passing car swerved out of control and took his legs out from under him. He was left paralyzed from the waist down, and told by every doctor he visited that he would never walk again.

But thanks to great advances in medical technology, doctors turned out to be wrong, and Summers eventually learned how to stand up, and even step on a treadmill unassisted – that is, with thanks to a device originally designed to relieve pain, the epidural stimulation device.

rob summers walk agains thanks to epidural stimulation implant 550x309 Implant Helps Paralyzed Man Walk Again

Rob Summers Walks Again

The pace-maker like implant electrically stimulates the nervous system through 16 electrodes implanted in the spine. This ‘epidural stimulation’ awakens the nerves allowing them to receive sensory information from the legs.

Summers achievements were by no means easy, however the implant certainly made the impossible, possible. Prior to the procedure Summers underwent extensive physiotherapy to try and move, a total of 170 training session over 26 months with no luck.

Then in 2009, Summers became the first patient to receive the epidural stimulation and on his third try, he was able to stand with just a little support. After 7 months of therapy, Summers was able to stand unaided, move his legs at will, and even took a few steps unassisted.

Summers’ treatment and hard work had an unexpected benefit: He regained control of his bowels and bladder, and told his doctors that he had regained sexual function.

Up until the accident Summers had been pitcher for Oregon State’s championship team, a hobby he would someday like to return to. Speaking at a new teleconference, Summers said:

“Being able to stand for first time was both emotional and exciting. After years of seeing no gains or recovered function, I was able to see my hard work pay off. It was as rewarding as anything I have ever done in my life…

“Being able to move my ankles, my toes, my knees – there are not enough words to describe how I felt after not having anything for four years…

“It was a dream and now it is a reality. I am going to work until I achieve all my goals.” [WebMD]

Summers can only stand unaided when the device is switched on, and for the most part he still gets around using his wheelchair. Nevertheless researchers have still dubbed the treatment “unprecedented in spinal cord injury medicine,” and a “breakthrough,” that is “going to make a major impact”.

Susan Harkema, PhD, of the University of Louisville, Ky., and colleagues. Lead researcher of the project said:

“What we have found here is a new set of mechanisms that have never been taken advantage of in a therapeutic way…

“It opens a whole new set of possibilities for patients, not just those recently injured but those who have been injured for months and years.” [WebMD]

The treatment, while hailed as a medical breakthrough, did not come overnight but is rather the result of more than 30 years of research by a number of scientists with Harkema’s mentor and study partner, V. Reggie Edgerton, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, being one of the prominent figures.

John McDonald, MD, director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute, and who worked with actor Christopher Reeve for several years after Reeve’s devastating spinal cord injury, praised the new treatment and said he was keen to try the technique:

“I’m already on board. This technology will really only help the 10 to 15 percent of people with spinal cord injury who are basically about to regain the ability to walk a short distance using walkers or braces. … Eventually, everyone in that 10 to 15 percent is going to get one of these. To be able to offer this is what we dream of as physicians.” [WebMD]

Summers’ case is being published Friday 19th May, in the journal The Lancet.


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  1. Davey Alba: Implant Allows Paralyzed Man To Move. Gizmodo, 05/19/2011.
  2. Daniel J DeNoon: Spine Injury Breakthrough: Paralyzed Man Stands, Moves. WebMD, 05/19/2011.

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