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Spine Injury Breakthrough: Paralyzed Man Stands, Moves

Paraplegic Man Regains Voluntary Movement With Implanted Device, Rehab

Hard Work Leads to Success continued...

But it wasn't all the doctors' doing. Before getting the implant, Summers practiced trying to move for over 26 months in 170 training sessions. He never gave up -- but did not move until receiving the implant. On his third try, when Harkema's team found just the right level and pattern of electric stimulation, he was able to stand with only minimal support for balance.

Seven months later, he became able to move his legs on command, although he can neither stand nor move when the device is turned off. It's not designed to be left on all day, but that hasn't dimmed the young athlete's determination.

"Being able to move my ankles, my toes, my knees -- there are not enough words to describe how I felt after not having anything for four years," Summers said. "It was a dream and now it is a reality. I am going to work until I achieve all my goals. I have a long list: First to stand completely independently, then to take steps in a functional manner, and eventually to play baseball again."

Summers' treatment and hard work had an unexpected benefit: He regained control of his bowels and bladder, and told his doctors that he had regained sexual function.

"Not only has this given me more quality of life, but I have the confidence to get out in world and live my life," he said.

Spinal Injury Treatment Experimental, but Device Already on Market for Pain

Harkema and colleagues warn that the procedure remains experimental, and that the device implanted into Summers will have to be redesigned for spinal-cord treatment. They are not sure exactly which spinal-cord-injury patients can be helped with this technique and which can't.

But John McDonald, MD, director of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at Kennedy Krieger Institute, is eager to try the technique. McDonald worked with actor Christopher Reeve for several years after Reeve's devastating spinal cord injury.

"I'm already on board," McDonald tells WebMD. "This technology will really only help the 10 to 15 percent of people with spinal cord injury who are basically about to regain the ability to walk a short distance using walkers or braces. ... Eventually, everyone in that 10 to 15 percent is going to get one of these. To be able to offer this is what we dream of as physicians."

John Heller, MD, director of the spine fellowship training program at Emory University, participated in some of the early research into spinal stimulation in the 1980s. Like McDonald (but unlike Harkema), he sees no problem with surgical teams adapting the current device for treating spine-injury patients. But Heller is quick to point out the limitations of the Harkema/Edgerton technique.

"This would be a nice kind of end-around that would be a very helpful crutch to patients," Heller tells WebMD. "But because it depends on software and batteries and a gadget, it will never be the same as if we could re-establish the spine/brain connections nature engineered -- that is the Holy Grail of spinal injury research. While we will continue those efforts, if this is a leg up in the process, this is great."

The Harkema study was funded by the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and by the National Institutes of Health. Harkema and colleagues report their findings in the May 20 online issue of The Lancet.

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