While common that electrical stimulation can make paralyzed patients move, this is the first time that electrical stimulation applied directly to the spinal cord "has shown voluntary activity" in a patient.
At her research lab at the University of Louisville, neuroscientist Susan Harkema turned her back to her study subject to check a reading on a computer screen.
"Hey Susie, look at this," the patient called out to her. "I can move my toe!"
Startled, Harkema spun around. The purpose of her study, which involves sending electrical stimulation to broken spinal cords, was to learn more about nerve pathways, not to actually make patients move.
That must be an involuntary spasm, she thought. She asked the patient, Rob Summers, to lie down and close his eyes and follow her commands.
"Move your left toe," she said to him -- and he did. "Move your right toe," she asked -- and he did.
"Holy s***!" she yelled out loud.
Over the next five years, Harkema's team applied electrical stimulation to three more paralyzed men, and all four developed movement, and not just small movements. In addition to wiggling their big toes, they can lift and swing their legs, move their ankles and sit up without support. Two patients can even do situps.
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