Imagine being able to perform everyday tasks that you once thought were impossible due to paralysis caused by a stroke. For two patients, the University of Pittsburgh’s small study on electrical stimulation of the spinal cord allowed them to regain some of their lost movements.
Both patients had suffered from a severely restricted movement for years following a stroke, which can permanently disrupt communication between the brain and spinal cord. Now, they could lift their arms, open and close their fists, use utensils to eat, and pick up small objects for the first time in years.
The device consists of a pair of electrodes that activate neural circuits within the spine, resulting in immediate improvements in motor function.
Electrical stimulation of the spinal cord is already used to treat pain. But the study found that applying a mild electrical current to precise places on the spinal cord could restore function to the arm and hand muscles. The spinal cord sends signals from the brain to the body and is a lengthy bundle of nerves running down the back.
During the research, surgeons inserted thin metal electrodes resembling spaghetti strands into the upper part of the spinal cord in the neck. These electrodes targeted clusters of nerves responsible for regulating arm and hand muscles.
The cables from the electrodes were placed outside the skin and linked to a laboratory stimulation system. During the trial period, one patient could fully open and close her left hand, something she couldn’t do before.
After just 29 days of spinal cord stimulation, the patients could perform tasks they hadn't been able to do since before their stroke. From simple movements like raising their arm above their head and opening and closing their fist to more complex tasks like grasping small objects and using cutlery, the patients exhibited a remarkable recovery of motion and agility.
Grip strength improved by 40 per cent and 108 per cent, respectively, and there was a 30 to 40 per cent improvement in kinematics.
The researchers hope their device will be used both as an assistive technology to help patients regain function in the short term and as a therapeutic treatment that can lead to lasting improvements even when the electrodes are turned off.
They believe that major clinical trials are needed to confirm their findings in a larger cohort of patients. But their initial success provides an exciting prospect for the future of stroke therapies.