The young Kelly Thomas, 23 years old, grew up on horseback, raising cattle and helping her father on her ranch, until in 2014, a car accident left her paraplegic with an incomplete injury to the spinal cord, being paralyzed from the chest down, unable to use the legs.
Chef Jeff Marquis, enjoyed a very active life in nature until, in the fall of 2011, everything changed when he had a bicycle accident on a mountain trail, which caused a spinal cord injury, leaving him quadriplegic, incapacitated to move from the chest down.
Jered Chinnock, a young man who is now 29 years old, injured the spinal cord in the thoracic vertebrae located in the middle of his back in an accident with a snowmobile in 2013: he was unable to move or feel anything below the middle of the torso .
These three people can now walk, thanks to two systems that combine the complementary stimulation of devices implanted in the body, daily locomotor training and physical therapy, developed independently by two US research teams.
Reconnecting brain and bone
Thomas and Marquis managed to move with their legs in the experiment of the Spinal Cord Injury Research Center of Kentucky, at the University of Louisville, UofL, in Kentucky, United States.
Two other spinal injuries managed to maintain stability in their trunk and remain standing, using the stimulation and mentally focus on it, within this same research initiative.
"This research demonstrates that brain connectivity to the spine can be restored years after a spinal cord injury," says Dr. Susan Harkema, author of the study, a professor and associate director of the KSCIRS. "Participants in this study who lived with complete paralysis were able to walk, stand, recover trunk mobility and other motor functions, without physical assistance, when they used the epidural stimulator and remained mentally focused on taking their steps", explains Harkema.
This specialist hopes to extend this research to more participants, using an improved stimulation technology, due to the "tremendous potential for progress of this method, and for the possibilities that in the future could offer to those with a spinal cord injury", indicates
"When the four participants joined the study at least two and a half years ago they had been injured, and could not stand up, walk or move their legs voluntarily," informs Efe Betty Coffman, communications specialist on health topics at the UofL.
Two of those participants, Thomas and Marquis, managed to walk on the ground and on a treadmill with the help of assistive devices, such as a walker and horizontal poles, to maintain balance while the epidural stimulator was on, says Coffman.
According to UofL, this research is based on two different treatments: locomotor physical training and spinal cord epidural stimulation (scES), through an implanted device that sends electrical signals to the motor neurons in the spine.
"Epidural stimulation consists in the application of continuous electric current at varying frequencies and intensities in specific places in the lumbosacral spinal cord, a location that corresponds to the dense neural networks that control to a great extent the movement of the hips, knees, ankles. and the toes, "explains Coffman.
For its part, the locomotor training "aims, ultimately, to retrain the spinal cord to" remember "the neurological pattern corresponding to the activity of walking, practicing repetitively, standing and walking", de agreement with this communicator of the UofL.
"In a session of locomotor training therapy, the participant's body weight is supported by a harness, while specially trained personnel move the legs of the injured person to simulate that they are walking on a treadmill," Coffman explains.
Returning to walk, five years later
Spinal cord stimulation and combined physiotherapy have helped Jered Chinnock regain his ability to stand and walk with help as a result of other research conducted in the United States in a collaboration between the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota , and the University of California, UCLA, in Los Angeles.