LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (NBC News) — Decades of research into spinal cord injuries are paying off.
Researchers reported Monday that several paralyzed patients are doing what was once considered impossible. They’re walking.
Patients at the University of Louisville in Kentucky have an electronic stimulator implanted on their spinal cords. They’ve been through hours and hours of grueling physical therapy, – first on a treadmill with trainers moving their legs for them in stepping motions.
It’s not easy.
“It takes a lot of concentration,” says patient Jeff Marquis. “You’ve got to focus on what you’re doing to get the best results.”
Eventually, with help from the stimulator, the spinal cord has its eureka moment.
“It doesn’t happen the first time. It doesn’t happen the hundredth time. But over time, each time it’s practiced, that circuitry remembers and really relearns to do those motor tasks,” explains Dr. Susan Harkema.
The patients had not had any control of their legs in more than two years. Now they’re using walkers.
“When you think about those that are injured when they leave the hospital, they’re told, here’s your chair, here’s your meds. And oh, by the way, that which you get back in the first few months is what you can expect for the rest of your life. This turns that dogma right on its face,” says Peter Wilderotter, president of Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
A research team at the Mayo Clinic reported similar success with a third patient.
The findings bring hope to the more than a million people in the United States who are paralyzed because of a spinal cord injury.