Paralyzed Man Walks Again Due to This Breakthrough Technology
Thanks to a huge amount of determination, a team of UCLA scientists and some technology manufactured by Ekso Bionics, Mark Pollock, age 39, was able to take thousands of steps over the course of an intensive five-day training session – and for another two weeks after. Pollock had taken a tragic blow when, weeks before his wedding, a fall out of a window left him paralyzed from the waste down. This study would mark the first time ever that a person with such extensive paralysis would regain sufficient voluntary control over his or her paralyzed limbs enough to the point where he or she could utilize a mobility-enhancing robotic device.
The robotic device, though, was only partly responsible for this miracle. A non-invasive procedure called spinal stimulation helped this process along by helping Pollock to essentially re-learn the sensations of what it felt like to be “connected” to his limbs. Some spinoff benefits, researchers remark, is that these muscle movements spur on other benefits like improved cardiovascular health and muscle tone, even if the likelihood of full recovery is slim.
More About the Technology That Made This Possible
The same research that helped Pollock in this achievement is an advancement of prior research in which electrode arrays were directly implanted onto a person’s spinal cord. This new technique is called “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation,” which involves the strategic placement of electrodes onto the skin over the back.
In the previous studies, patients only responded involuntarily to the electrical impulses at first; however, progress was seen quickly, as it took only four sessions to see the first signs of voluntary control, which even lasted up to two weeks after.
The improvements seen in this past 18-week study were helped along by the use of buspirone. Administered in the last four weeks of the study, buspirone is a serotonin-mimicking drug that has been shown to “induce walking motions in mice with spinal cord injuries.” All five of the patients, each who had been paralyzed for at least two years, were able to move their legs independently after the study – all without electrical stimulation.
Researcher V. Reggie Edgerton remarks, “It’s as if we’ve reawakened some networks,” referring to the nervous system network responsible for mobility.
Although the technology is years away from being widely available, researchers are optimistic about how it may help to improve the quality of life for those suffering from paralysis, even if they’re never able to make a full recovery. In fact, professor Edgerton says, “For people who are severely injured but not completely paralyzed, there’s every reason to believe that they will have the opportunity to use these types of interventions to further improve their level of function.” He also urges others to help “expand the clinical toolbox” for those with spinal injury, saying that a lot more could be accomplished in advancing this technology if they only had more resources.