In July of 2006, Rob Summers suffered a spinal cord neck injury referred to as a C7-T1 subluxation after a motor vehicle accident. The injury left him paralyzed from the chest down. At the time of the injury, he was a junior baseball player at Oregon State University and pitched for his team in a championship season. Despite almost 3 years of extensive physical rehabilitation, Mr. Summers remained paralyzed without the ability to move his legs although he did retain the ability to feel the sensation of touch. In December of 2009, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Louisville implanted an electrical stimulator into the spinal cord of Mr. Summers. In the first few weeks after the surgery, Mr. Summers was able to stand from a seated position, and take steps on a treadmill with some assistance. The results are unprecedented for the field of spinal cord injuries and hopefully marks a new era of treatment advancements. Prior to this advancement, medical scientists had been able to use electrical stimulation to produce minor movements of muscles in spinal cord injury patients. This is the first time that the use of electrical stimulation has been able to allow a patient to stand and take steps with assistance. Mr. Summers can also perform fine movements of his toes, ankles, knees, and hips. The muscle function that Mr. Summers has regained occurs only when the electrical stimulator is active. Over a two year period, the doctors have use trial and error to establish the exact combination of electrical stimulation and position to produce these results. In Mr. Summers’ case, the electrical stimulation has apparently re-activated nerve circuits that have remained intact despite the spinal cord injury. The research was recently published online in the British journal The Lancet, and was funded by The National Institutes of Health and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The authors of the study caution that this is the first time these results have been obtained, and more research needs to be performed in order to establish which spinal cord injury patients will be able to benefit from this treatment. The researchers are estimating that about 10-15% of spinal cord injury patients may see similar results. This truly is a remarkable advancement, and hopefully marks an era of future gains for the field of spinal cord injury research.
See the YouTube Video about Rob Summers below:
Susan Harkema et. al. “Effect of epidural stimulation of the lumbosacral spinal cord on voluntary movement, standing, and assisted stepping after motor complete paraplegia: a case study” The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 20 May 2011 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60547-3
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