A new therapy that uses a spinal cord stimulator is helping people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries move limbs and digits for the first time in years.
The new study published in the journal Brain worked with four paraplegic subjects who've had their injuries for over two years — previously thought to be the point of no return for rehabilitation of any kind — helping them move previously immobile legs, knees, ankles and toes, reports The Wall Street Journal
The study, funded in part by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, marks the first time electrical stimulation applied directly to the spinal cord has enabled voluntary movement. The movements are small in some cases, such as wiggled toes and feet, however in other cases subjects have been able to lift and swing their legs, and even sit up without assistance from their arms.
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No subjects have regained the ability to walk yet, but the neuroscientists say the new therapy shows the potential to one day help them do so.
"It's been a long-held belief by scientists and clinicians alike that if you have no ability to move after two years, there's not any possibility that you're going to be able to move. What these results show is that is not the case," said Susan Harkema, one of the study researchers who is also rehabilitation research director at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville.
Altogether, the study was conducted by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
The sensors used for stimulation were made by Medtronic Inc., and were implanted into the subjects' backs. The subjects saw their progress in regaining physical functions over the course of roughly eight months of physical rehab, with many able to see results in just the first few days.
Scientists hypothesize the stimulation increases the spinal cord's receptivity to brain signals, even if they are relatively weak.
For some subjects like Dustin Shillcox, 29, the researchers were initially skeptical the therapy would have any effect. He was in a car accident in 2010, and was not only unable to move his lower body, but also unable to feel it, suggesting there was a complete disconnection between the brain and the legs. But after just one week, Shillcox was able to make voluntary movements, which would later lead to positive side-developments such as greater bone density in his legs.
Researchers intend to conduct a bigger study with eight subjects in the coming months, with the goal of developing a stimulation device that can target certain areas of the spinal cord more efficiently.
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