Scientists create noninvasive spinal stimulation tech to help paralyzed move

Researchers were able to restore movement in paralyzed individuals after treatment with noninvasive spinal stimulation.--Courtesy of Edgerton laboratory/UCLA

Spinal cord stimulation is the med tech trend du jour, and researchers are harnessing the technology to create a noninvasive method that helps restore movement in paralyzed individuals.

A team of scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Francisco; and the St. Petersburg, Russia-based Pavlov Institute are developing transcutaneous stimulation technology that allowed 5 men with complete motor paralysis to make steplike movements. Researchers placed electrodes on the men's lower backs and suspended their legs in braces hanging from the ceiling, which let them move freely without resistance from gravity. The men also received conditioning to see whether physical training combined with the electrical stimulation could facilitate movement.

Scientists found that by the end of the 18-week study, and with the addition of serotonin med buspirone, the 5 men were able to move their legs with no stimulation. And the men's average range of motion was the same as when they were receiving stimulation, the researchers said in a statement. The team, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), published their findings in the Journal of Neurotrauma.

"These encouraging results provide continued evidence that spinal cord injury may no longer mean a life-long sentence of paralysis and support the need for more research," Dr. Roderic Pettigrew, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at the NIH, said in a statement. "The potential to offer a life-changing therapy to patients without requiring surgery would be a major advance; it could greatly expand the number of individuals who might benefit from spinal cord stimulation."

The research builds on the team's previous work with spinal stimulation. Last year, the scientists, along with researchers from the University of Louisville, KY, found that four paralyzed men were able to generate voluntary movements after a surgically-implanted device delivered electric stimulation to their spinal cords.

Next up, the team plans to test its noninvasive spinal stimulation on patients who have partial paralysis, lead researcher V. Reggie Edgerton said in a statement. And the researchers will also continue to develop their surgically implanted device, as both methods offer their own advantages, Edgerton added. A noninvasive stimulator could see whether an individual could tolerate neuromodulation, for example, which would then require a surgical implant.

"All patients are going to need something slightly different, and maybe noninvasive stimulation is going to be best in some cases and epidural stimulation in others," Edgerton said in a statement. "What we need to do is maximize the clinical tool box that we have so that the physician and the patient can select a therapy that is best for them."

- read the NIH statement

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