To the Fourth Power: How Epidural Stimulation Moves Us Closer

April 8, 2014

In 2011, we witnessed a paraplegic man stand due to a pioneering therapy intervention known as epidural stimulation. It was deemed an unprecedented breakthrough for the research community and challenged the notion that the spinal cord, once damaged, could never repair or recover. However, this man, Rob Summers, was a singular study participant.

As reported today in the medical journal Brain, four young men who have been paralyzed for years achieved groundbreaking progress -- moving their legs -- as a result of epidural stimulation.

These men, including Rob Summers, were classified with a chronic motor complete spinal cord injury and two of the participants classified as both sensory and motor complete. The participants were at least two years post-injury at the time, and after being implanted, were able to process conceptual, auditory and visual input to regain voluntary control of paralyzed muscles.

This research, which was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Louisville, UCLA and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology, brings tremendous hope to the nearly six million Americans living with paralysis, including 1.3 million spinal cord injuries, for whom there are presently no effective evidence-based treatments for spinal cord injury.

A critical observation noted in the research was that the second, third and fourth participants were able to execute voluntary movements immediately following the implantation of the epidural stimulator, which suggests that some nerve pathways may be intact post-injury and therefore, able to facilitate voluntary movements.

Over the course of the study, the participants were also able to initiate movements with less stimulation, demonstrating how the spinal nerve networks can learn and improve function.

Beyond recovering movement in their legs, hips, ankles and toes, the four participants experienced improvements in their overall health and sense of well-being. From white water rafting to spending more active time with their family and friends, their lives have dramatically transformed due to epidural stimulation. Even more exciting, by the conclusion of the study, all four men were able to bear weight independently.

While this research, funded in part by the Reeve Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), brings up an amazing number of possibilities for how we can develop interventions that lead people to recover movement they have lost, it also moves us closer to delivering on the Reeve Foundation mission -- cures for paralysis.

Researchers are optimistic that with continued advancements of the epidural stimulator, individuals with a complete spinal cord injury will be able to bear weight independently, maintain balance and work towards stepping.

Christopher Reeve reminded us that "nothing is impossible" and challenged the world to dream of empty wheelchairs. I am proud to report that we are working tirelessly to make that dream a reality.

There is more work to be done but we are dedicated to discover cures in the here and now. Let's keep moving forward.

Peter T. Wilderotter
President and CEO
Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation