Researchers have been focusing on several different spinal cord injury treatments; one of which is electrical stimulation of the spinal cord. The stimulation of the spinal cord delivers small bursts of a low-level electrical current to paralyzed muscles in order to help generate muscle contractions.
The stimulation is used to aid in exercise as well as to restore better breathing functions, grasping capabilities, transferring, improvement of blood flow to the skin and even standing.
In a recent study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, four individuals with paraplegia were able to move paralyzed muscles as a result of an electrical stimulation therapy to their spinal cords. The patients were able to voluntarily flex their toes, ankles and knees with stimulation. In addition, those movements were enhanced over time when combined with physical rehabilitation.
Two of the four participants in the study had complete sensory and motor paralysis. In these patients, the pathway that sends information about sensation from the legs to the brain is disrupted, in addition to the pathway that sends information from the brain to the legs in order to control movement. The researchers were particularly impacted by the fact that the patients responded positively to the electrical stimulation; as they had assumed that at least some of the sensory pathway needed to be intact in order for the therapy to be effective.
Researchers also point to the speed in which each study participant recovered voluntary movement as evidence that there may be dormant connections that exist in patients with complete motor paralysis. In addition, another important aspect of the study assessed the ability of each patient to modulate their movements in response to auditory and visual cues. All participants were able to synchronize leg, ankle and toe movements in unison with the rise and fall of a wave displayed on a computer screen, and three out of the four were able to change the force at which they flexed their leg, depending on the intensity of all three different auditory cues. The findings that the brain is able to take advantage of the few connections that may be remaining and then process the complicated visual, auditory and perceptual information tells researchers that the information from the brain is getting to the right place in the spinal cord. Researchers involved with the study say that the therapy has the potential to change the prognosis of people with paralysis even years after injury.
Researchers next plan to see if stimulation therapy can help patients with paralysis of upper limbs.
To learn more information stimulation therapy, please visit the National Institutes of Health website.Spinal Cord Injury Resources