"The whole system is doing better," says William E. Staas Jr., MD, president and medical director of Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, where Taliaferro was treated after leaving Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. "The quality of recovery and life is much, much improved. And we will continue to make progress."
There is extensive research on therapies to help people with what are called "complete" injuries -- complete in that the person cannot function. Still, scientists like Naomi Kleitman, PhD, of the Miami Project To Cure Paralysis, say that while there is a lot of hope and even good preliminary results, nothing looks like a cure.
Some of the more intriguing research is on what are known as Schwann cells. These cells normally wrap around the individual nerve fibers of peripheral nerves that go out to innervate organs and muscles. They can regenerate but are not found in the spinal cord. Scientists are now experimenting with ways to place Schwann cells in damaged spinal cords so they might form a "bridge" over the injured site, possibly allowing the nerve fibers (long finger-like projections from nerve cells in the brain) to grow past the point of injury.
"There is a lot of promise there, but we are not doing it in people yet," Kleitman says. "This has to be done very carefully in the lab, to the point that we know we're ready to go to [human] use of it. We're discovering what our tools are, and trying as quickly as we can to bring it to clinical reality."
Most dramatic in the last decade has been the decreasing number of people suffering complete paralysis, and the parallel increase in those with "incomplete" injuries (resulting in some, but not all, loss of function). That shift, Kleitman says, in part reflects new thinking about how newly injured people should be treated.
"In 1980, people believed that the brain and spine were hopeless if injured," she says. "Since the early 1990s, the thinking has gone from, 'We can't do anything, so let's wait,' to 'If we stop the chain of injury, now they will do better.' Something we're doing is helping people get some [function] back."