A 23-year-old American man who is paralysed from the chest down has been able to stand independently again following stimulation of his spinal cord, the Lancet reports.
Rob Summers can now voluntarily move his toes, hips, knees and ankles and also walk on a treadmill while being supported. The baseball player suffered extensive injuries when he was struck by a car in July 2006.
The Lancet says that he had “complete loss of clinically detectable voluntary motor function”, though he retained some sensation. Doctors had initially told him he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
The researchers involved in this pioneering project – funded by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation – inserted electrodes close to Summers’ spinal cord which electrically stimulated his nerve circuits.
In this BBC video, containing footage filmed by the research team, Summers describes the research as “ground-breaking” and “life-changing”:
The moment I stood up, I was in disbelief. I was amazed, I was shocked. I didn’t think it would happen that fast. Doctors had anticipated maybe five years I could stand, and standing on the third day, I blew all of the doctors out of the water.
It took Summers two years to train before using the electrodes to stand, but the Guardian reports that the main discovery from the project has been the integral role played by the spine and legs control movement, rather than the brain.
Although Summers’ progress will come as good news to people who have suffering paralysis, Professor Geoffrey Raisman of the Institute of Neurology told the BBC that this treatment was not presenting itself as a cure. He said it was hard to gauge the impact of this case study on further improvements in this area:
“From the point of view of people currently suffering from spinal cord injury, future trials of this procedure could add one more approach to getting some benefit. It is not and does not claim to be a cure.”