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An electrifying awakening electrical stimulation of the spinal cord could let paralyzed people move again

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In May 2011, a news report announced that researchers had for the first time enabled a paralyzed person to stand on his own. Neuroscientist Susan Harkema at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky, used electrical stimulation to “awaken” the man's lower spinal cord, and on the first day of the experiments he stood up, able to support all of his weight with just some minor assistance to stay balanced. The stimulation also enabled the subject, 23-year-old Rob Summers, to voluntarily move his legs in other ways. Later, he regained some control of his bladder, bowel, and sexual functions, even when the electrodes were turned off.The breakthrough, published in The Lancet, shocked doctors who had previously tried electrically stimulating the spinal nerves of experimental animals and people with spinal-cord injuries. In decades of research, they had come nowhere near this level of success. “This had never been shown before-ever,” says Grégoire Courtine, who heads a lab focused on spinal-cord repair at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and was not involved with the project. “Rob's is a pioneer recovery. And what was surprising to me was that his was better than what we've seen in rats. It was really exciting for me to see.”

Published in:

Spectrum, IEEE  (Volume:50 ,  Issue: 11 )