Researchers reported last week that a 25-year-old Portland man who has been paralyzed from the chest down since 2006 took a few steps thanks to a revolutionary experimental treatment. The former Oregon State University baseball player sustained his spinal cord injury in a hit-and-run car accident in Portland.
The former athlete was a good candidate for the treatment because he retained some feeling after the accident. Still, after three years of therapy, he had faced a lifetime confined to a wheelchair. Now? He explained his reaction to the success of the experiment: “To have the freedom and ability to stand on my own is the most amazing feeling.”
The treatment involves surgically implanted electrodes that provide direct stimulation of the spinal cord. The stimulation acts as a kind of spinal cord reboot — a reactivation of the uninjured nerve circuits — that is then transmitted to the brain. Though scientists don’t really know how it works, the brain and the sensory information sent to the spinal cord from the legs make standing and taking a few steps possible.
Improvement didn’t happen overnight. Surgeons implanted the strip of electrodes along the man’s lower spinal cord a few years ago. Since the surgery, the patient and researchers have been working to find the right combination of stimulation and body position that would allow the patient to match his thoughts to his body.
It’s a little like riding a Segway — you have to think about moving forward for the Segway to move forward. It takes some sophisticated, complex neurons to allow someone to think about moving a toe and then have the toe respond. The refinement of the movement is the goal — thinking about the toe and moving the ankle isn’t good enough.
However it works, scientists have hailed those few steps as “unprecedented” and “absolutely incredible.” They admit that the results could be different for patients with more severe injuries or who have been paralyzed longer than this patient.
For the former athlete, the procedure has changed his life. As he says, he is taking, literally, the next step to a more promising future.