Friday, September 25, 2009

Recent Study on Paralyzed Rats

A friend sent me an article this past Sunday about some recently reported findings for possible paralysis treatments. I thought I should share it, for those of you that might have missed the news. The full report was published in the current issue of Nature Neuroscience, although you need to purchase the article if you don't already subscribe to the journal. You can only read the abstract for free. The report can be downloaded directly on through Nature Neuroscience website. Here's the link to the Yahoo News article that my friend sent me:

I'm left with many questions after reading this article. Although, I do realize that this article is just a summary, and therefore missing all the details. I'm very curious as to how this three part treatment could be applied to humans. I've heard of people having success by going through intensive rehab programs, such as Project Walk in CA. This specific program uses electric stimulation and repetitive movements, in hopes of re-teaching the body and help form new connections between the brain and spine. I've read about a couple of similar rehabs, unfortunately there are very few of these facilities nationwide and they're not always covered by insurance. After my accident, I did three months of rehab at Kessler, here in NJ. I have a complete C4/C5 injury. In my experience at Kessler, I felt the emphasis was put on educating people how to live in wheelchair, versus giving people hope of recovery. Therapists had several patients in each session, so it was impossible to receive much intensive one on one treatment. As for me, I felt like (due to my severe injury) they had given up on my "recovery" before I even rolled through the door. It would be great if there were more choices like Project Walk were available. I know Project Walk opened its doors in 1999. This new article speaks about treatments that appear to be similar to Project Walk's program. I'm wondering how similar the treatments that were given to the rats in this new study are, versus existing techniques some rehabs already use.

Although all research into curing paralysis is valuable (even failed treatments can give scientists insight to new ideas) I don't see how this particular experiment could benefit humans, given the fact that the rats are still unable to walk without the electric stimulation and treadmill. I'm kind of left thinking, "What's the point, if the rats can only walk when they're hooked up to the machine? What kind of applications could there be, outside of physical therapy?" One benefit that comes to mind is weight bearing, which is important because it helps keep bones strong and helps blood circulation. There are already various types of equipment being used in rehab facilities and in homes that allow for standing, such as tilt tables and standing frames. I've already witnessed people "walking" with the assistance of two or three physical therapists helping them to move their legs, while being suspended over a treadmill. Granted, the treatment I saw did not include e-stim, which this study does. In terms of everyday use, I doubt many people would be able to afford to buy all of necessary equipment. When I was in rehab the facility only had one setup like the one described in the article, and I never even saw it used (I speculate the reason was shortage of staff).

This technology could be used surgically, in the form of implanting wires directly to the muscles (internally). The person could then use a high tech remote control device (externally) to control their movements by pushing buttons. Each button on the remote would send a jolt of e-stim to a specific muscle, thus allowing the person the move. In fact, I've seen a similar device already being used, to help people with foot drop ( and for bladder control ( The perplexing part for me is how this technology could assist people with high level injuries, such as myself. People that suffer from cervical spinal cord injuries might not have any control of their hands, so how could they operate a remote device? I'm unconvinced that people with high level injuries could benefit from this type of implantation (outside of physical therapy). I can definitely see this sort of treatment being used for low level injuries, as they could control more complex remote control devices, which could potentially allow users to perform any number of movements.

As I said earlier, this study is interesting and I'm sure the doctors performing the study gained valuable information. I think it's safe to say that most doctors that are working on a cure for paralysis would all agree that a "cure" will most likely be a mixture of techniques, medicine and/or surgeries. It is doubtful that will ever be one simple solution, so is important that researchers explore all options. In my mind, immediate goal towards “curing” paralysis is focused on giving people back the freedom to care for themselves, which may or may not include walking. Personally, I'd be satisfied even if I couldn't walk, as long as I could care for myself. For me, walking again would be a very welcomed bonus, in terms of recovering my independence, but I'm not as hopeful for walking as I am for recovering enough mobility to not need help. I'm more optimistic about advancing therapies that could repair or reconnect the spinal cord. Although this study shows we might able to circumvent the connection between the brain and spinal cord all together, it is not addressing the real problem. I view this type of treatment as a temporary solution. However, I’m sure many people will consider this technology worthwhile for them and that we will see people using this type of approach. As for me, I rather not rely on gadgets. I'm still holding out hope for doctors to be able to repair the connections that already exist in my body and that used to perform naturally.

I did some digging & found the full study, available to read online for free:

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