New hope for those dealing with spinal cord injuries

Four men who have severe paralysis are lifting their legs due to a spinal cord implant that's in early stages of development.

Woman sitting on a doctor's table waiting for a pap test

Photo, Getty Images.

The future is looking increasingly brighter for those dealing with paralysis as a result of devastating spinal cord injuries, suggests a recent article in Fast Company.

Though still in the early stages of development, researchers from the University of Louisville, UCLA, and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology have created a spinal cord implant that has given four young men something they were told was impossible: the ability to move their legs, ankles and toes when wearing the implant.

The device, which is surgically implanted, works as a kind of artificial brain essentially stimulating the spinal cord to respond, which then results in movement.

And that movement is more than just a tiny wiggle. The men involved in the trial are lifting their legs entirely. To witness the amazing effect of the implant, see the video below.

“The concept is that the brain sends a simple straightforward signal, the spinal cord responds, and it has complex signals that execute the details of the movement,” Dr. Susan Harkema, a professor at University of Louisville and the director University of Louisville’s Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center (KSCIRC) told Fast Company writer Ariel Schwartz.

But as the article points out, movement isn’t the only benefit of the intensive treatment.  The men are also enjoying greater overall health, with better muscle tone, as well as improved bone density and heart function in addition to better circulation.

For the researchers, the effects of the implant have provided a valuable reminder that there are no hopeless medical issues, but rather just medical issues in need of innovative responses.

“One of the big take-home messages is that our preconceived notions that people with severe paralysis have no hope of recovery needs to be scrutinized and looked at and challenged,” Harkema told Schwartz.