We will always be fascinated by major technological breakthroughs that make life easier for individuals with disabilities. Yet, from the perspective of someone who is completely or partially paralyzed due to a severe spinal cord injury, tiny victories are always welcome, by whatever means necessary. In a recent study, researchers managed to help six participants regain the use of their hands and fingers via a nonsurgical, noninvasive spinal stimulation procedure.
Of the six individuals, three were completely paralyzed. Three could not move their fingers. None could turn a doorknob with one hand or twist the cap off a plastic water bottle. Even using a cellphone could not be accomplished without great difficulty. All participants had chronic and severe paralysis for at least one year, and some for more than 10 years.
The main benefit was improved grip strength. However, other health benefits included improved blood pressure, bladder function, cardiovascular function and the ability to sit upright without support. So how did they do it?
Researchers placed electrodes on the skin to stimulate the circuitry of the spinal cord. The fancy name they came up with for their method is “transcutaneous enabling motor control,” or TtEmc for short. The electrical current is applied at varying frequencies and intensifies to specific locations on the spinal cord. Participants were then asked to squeeze a small gripping device, 18 times with each hand, and hold their grip for three seconds. Researchers measured the amount of force they used.
The whole study lasted for eight 90-minute sessions, consisting of two sessions per week over a four week period. It only took two for everyone to start showing significant improvement. After eight, each participant was able to perform feats of grip strength they had not been able to perform in years. They became less dependent on their caregivers and could feed and dress themselves.
60 days after training ended, two participants returned to the laboratory and were still able to demonstrate the same level of grip strength. They could turn a doorknob with one hand, twist off a bottle cap and use a fork with one hand. According to Peter Wilderotter, president and CEO of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, “improved hand function can mean the difference between needing around-the-clock care and living more independently.”
V. Reggie Edgerton is the senior author of the research and a UCLA distinguished professor of integrative biology and physiology, neurobiology and neurosurgery. He is seeking FDA approval for the motor control device so that it can be used by rehabilitation clinics and others. His method is inexpensive, does not require surgery and can be used in poor communities and countries without advanced medical facilities.