Scientists at UCLA devised a new method of therapy that might someday help paralyzed people walk again.
Mark Pollock, a 39 year old former athlete who is paralyzed from the waist down was able to take his first steps in five years with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton earlier this month.
This is the first time when a completely paralyzed individual is able to walk at his own volition, albeit with the help of a robotic device. Mark Pollock managed to take thousands of steps, proving that persons affected by paralysis can regain the ability to control their muscles in a rhythmic manner.
Scientists stress that his action cannot be considered walking, since the actual job of moving his legs is handled by the machine. Nevertheless, Mark does have voluntary control over his leg muscles, using them to input commands into the robotic device.
This follows the successes that the UCLA team enjoyed previously this year. Back in July, they were able to elicit simple voluntary movement from five paralyzed men. However, the men where lying down on a bed, and weren’t able to coordinate their own bodies in a vertical position.
The feat was made possible by a combination of non-invasive nerve stimulation, with the assistance of a battery powered exo-skeleton. The technique used is called “epidural electric stimulation”, and it consists of sending fluctuating electrical signals to paralyzed areas.
This was associated with Busiprone, a new drug that helps stimulate nerves and induce leg movement.
Reggie Edgerton, a physiologist at UCLA and the senior author of the study summarized the effects of the treatment:
“This changes the property of the spinal cord so that the person can decide when to move […] With this stimulation and a little bit of training, dormant cells can regain their function.”
This achievement is all the more remarkable as it only required a relatively short time span. Mr. Pollock only had to go through a few weeks of physical therapy sessions, followed by five days of epidural electric stimulation before jumping into the exo-suite.
The mechanical aide was compared by the scientists with the training wheels on a bike. It allows the patient to re-familiarize himself with the process of walking, and supporting his body vertically.
It is still unknown, however, if this process might facilitate a full recovery sometime in the future, but following the successes thus far, scientists declare themselves to be optimistic.
Regardless, even in its incipient form, the therapy greatly improves the quality of life for paralysis victims.
The results were first published in the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society’s magazine.
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