Electric stimulation may provide a way for people with complete paralysis to move again. In a study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, five men who had been paralyzed for more than two years received electric stimulation to their spinal cord via electrodes placed on the skin of their lower back. Previous research has shown movement can be regained with electric stimulation, but never using this type of non-invasive, skin-based technique.
The men received the treatment, combined with physical training, in 45-minute segments once a week for 18 weeks. After just four weeks of training, the men’s range of motion during voluntary leg movements doubled. In the last weeks of the study the men also received a drug called buspirone, which has been found to aid locomotion in mice. Afterward, they were able to move their legs without the electric stimulation, with about the same range of motion as during the stimulation period.
"It's as if we've reawakened some networks so that once the individuals learned how to use those networks, they become less dependent and even independent of the stimulation," study author Reggie Edgerton of UCLA explained in a press release.
The improvements shown in the study weren’t dramatic enough to allow the paralyzed men to walk again. The patients’ legs were suspended in a brace that allowed them to move without being hampered by gravity. Edgerton’s next study will examine whether similar treatments can allow paralyzed people to bear their weight.
Banner image via Edgerton Lab/UCLA