The Louisville Cardinal

U of L researcher helps paralyzed move again

By Jacob Pleas–

A U of L neuroscientist has given motion to the motionless.

Susan Harkema, rehabilitation research director of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, found that paralyzed patients were able to move their toes when electrical stimulation was applied directly to their spinal cord.

This is the first time electrical stimulation has allowed for voluntary activity.

The patients are now able to do things ranging from wiggling their toes to doing crunches. Although they are not sure why the process works, experts believe that this technology is a major step toward allowing the paralyzed to walk again.

“Improving the technology is a high priority because it will be needed in order to make any gains in mobility a reality in daily life,” said Harkema.

In the procedure, a stimulator is implanted into the patient and is controlled by an external remote controller.  The stimulator is connected to the spinal cord via wires, which conduct the electric pulses.

The device has had other benefits.  One patient has had great success in improving his bladder, bowels and sexual performance.  Patients are able to move their legs and torsos after years of paralysis, allowing them to regain lost muscle.

Since the discovery, over 1,700 people have asked about utilizing this technology. U of L has received funding to implant the device in eight more patients.

“We need more studies to understand both its safety and efficacy in a wider population,” said Harkema.

Only men have been researched so far. Harkema hopes to begin research on women soon. “Only 25 percent of the spinal cord population are women so they are more difficult to recruit,” said Harkema.

The biomedical and electrical engineering departments at U of L are working with Harkema’s team.

“I am proud to be a part of a school that is that is making such exciting discoveries,” said bioengineering major Ryan Bailer.  “I believe that these discoveries add prestige to both J.B. Speed School of Engineering and the University of Louisville Medical School.”

Photo courtesy Reuters