Responding to Paralysis

NeuroControl Corp.’s decision to drop out of the spinal cord injury market and target stroke instead (see article, this issue) has focused attention on at least two issues that will affect the future growth of the neurotechnology industry. First, and most obviously, the neurotech device industry, like any other industry, is driven by profit. The second, and more subtle lesson is that neurostimulation is a flexible and resilient technology and that advances that may not have a commercially viable application today may well find a home on another day.

As understandable as it may be for functional electrical stimulation researchers to be disappointed with NeuroControl for pulling out of what seems to be a textbook application, we should not expect that company, or its investors, to finance a losing commercial venture, no matter how noble the cause. However, if we truly believe that FES offers a solution to the pain, suffering, and loss of independence of people paralyzed by spinal cord injury, then we owe it to them to advance our case as best we can. If FreeHand had been taken off the market because it doesn’t work, or if users were dissatisfied with the product, then it might be time to move on. But that’s not the case. Feedback from the few who made it through the maze of disinformation, clinician apathy, and financial issues to get the device rate it very highly and would not want to do without it.

What’s at issue here is whether severely handicapped individuals can only receive the medical technology they need if there’s a sufficient profit potential in it for the private sector. That test might be appropriate for manufacturers of television sets, cellular phones, or computers, but it just doesn’t cut it when it relates to how we treat our disabled community. Imagine if we used that criterion when it came time to fund a new military aircraft or interstate highway.

We believe the American people will not stand for a situation in which much-needed and clinically proven medical technology is denied to quadriplegics simply because we happen to live in a capitalist nation. This notion violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which passed Congress with more popular and legislative support than the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Perhaps the best thing we can do to advance the application of neurotechnology to individuals with spinal cord injury is to take our case to the American public. It may be time to form a non-profit organization, with the active participation of the spinal cord injury community, to educate the public, the media, and members of Congress about the incredible success of neurotechnology and the unacceptable waste of viable solutions and patients’ lives. This publication would be eager to participate in such an endeavor, and we would welcome the input and support of our readers in starting a non-profit organization.

While we wage this battle on the public policy front, our engineering and marketing skills are well spent developing a viable neurotech device market for treating stroke and other neurological diseases and disorders. Chances are, the advances in technology and understanding of device-nervous system interaction that emerge will prove useful down the road when treating paralysis caused by spinal cord injury once again becomes the priority that it should be.

James Cavuoto
Editor and Publisher




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