Awakening Our Spine

The report that three new paralyzed individuals have had voluntary movement restored as a result of epidural stimulation and a training regimen developed at the University of Louisville, UCLA, and other institutions aroused interest in the media, as well as the spinal cord injury community, earlier this month. The report, published in the journal Brain, was authored by Susan Harkema at the University of Louisville, Reggie Edgerton at UCLA, and their colleagues. The new report adds credibility to the team’s previously published data from a single subject [NBR Dec11 p7].

This new line of research promises to revolutionize the practice of physical medicine and rehabilitation with respect to spinal cord injury, and conceivably launch a new market segment for neurotech devices. There is already one neurotech startup firm, NeuroRecovery Technologies, Inc., that is targeting this potential market and others may follow. Nick Terrafranca, NeuroRecovery Technology’s CEO, made one of the firm’s first presentations at the 2013 Neurotech Leaders Forum.

We were particularly pleased to see the team’s research supported—both financially and in the press—by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. In the early days of that organization, there was more emphasis on potential pharmaceutical interventions than neurotech devices. “The implications of this study for the entire field are quite profound and we now can envision a day where epidural stimulation might be part of a cocktail of therapies used to treat paralysis,” said Susan Howley, vice president for research at the foundation.

Of course epidural stimulation is not the only promising avenue of research for individuals with SCI. Very encouraging work on functional electrical stimulation of paralyzed muscles continues at Case Western Reserve University and other institutions. And innovations in neurorobotics, exoskeletons, and motor prosthetics all point to a day when paralyzed people can regularly walk on their own two feet again. At a minimum, the potential combination of these three approaches should forever banish phrases like “confined to a wheelchair,” or “will never walk again.”

“This is a wake-up call for how we see motor complete spinal cord injury,” said Edgerton. “We don’t have to necessarily rely on regrowth of nerves in order to regain function. The fact that we’ve observed this in four out of four people suggests that this is actually a common phenomenon in those diagnosed with complete paralysis.”

Hopefully, the new research can also serve as a wake-up call for neurotech researchers and entrepreneurs to not give up on the spinal cord injury community, regardless of the size of the market they represent.

James Cavuoto

Editor and Publisher

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