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In A First, A Non-Invasive Spinal Stimulation Helps Paralyzed People Regain Hand Function

In A First, A Non-Invasive Spinal Stimulation Helps Paralyzed People Regain Hand Function

"Small accomplishments like opening jars, bottles, and doors enable a level of independence and self-reliance that is quite satisfying," Cecilia Villarruel, one of the participants in the UCLA-led study, stated.

Over a million Americans suffer from spinal cord injury (SCI) that does not let them have full function of their limbs. This does not allow them to have the independence they desire. There has been limited progress in therapy that would have otherwise allowed disabled people to gain some hand function. This also happens to be the most desired function in tetraplegics. Research led by UCLA scientists has developed a nonsurgical, non-invasive spinal stimulation procedure that has helped several people who were completely paralyzed to regain the use of their hands and fingers for the first time in many years.



 

 

The findings of this research could be life-changing for many people who have been paralyzed. A stark improvement in hand functions was noticed after just eight sessions, which says a lot about the effectiveness. The study was published in the Journal of Neurotrauma and stated, "Our working hypothesis is that there are spinal neuronal networks above, within, and below a spinal lesion in a significant number of individuals with chronic, severe paralysis that can be neuromodulated into an elevated functional state." It further added, "The increasing number of examples of regained/improved supraspinal control after 'complete' paralysis suggest that the basic biology of a spinal lesion that is presently clinically defined to be motor complete must, at least, be challenged."



 

 

At the beginning of the therapy, participants could not use a cellphone successfully and several of them could not turn a doorknob or twist a bottle cap. "About midway through the sessions, I could open my bedroom door with my left hand for the first time since my injury and could open new water bottles, when previously someone else had to do this for me," Cecilia Villarruel, one of the participants said in a press release from UCLA. Villarruel's injury was the result of a car accident 13 years earlier. "Most people with a spinal cord injury say they just want to go to the bathroom like a normal person again," she added.



 

 

Villarruel continued, "Small accomplishments like opening jars, bottles, and doors enable a level of independence and self-reliance that is quite satisfying, and have a profound effect on people’s lives." The participants had improved their grip strength by the end of the sessions. The study’s lead author, UCLA research scientist Parag Gad stated, "Within two or three sessions, everyone started showing significant improvements, and kept improving from there." This is also the largest reported recovery in patients with such severe spinal cord injuries who regained significant use of their hands.



 

 

"The combination of spinal stimulation plus training with the hands allows them to regain the lost function," Gad said. He also added that the participants were less dependent on their caregivers. They could even feed and dress by themselves. Participants ranged from those who were paralyzed for just over a year to those who had lived with chronic paralysis for over a decade as well. Reggie Edgerton, senior author of the research and a UCLA distinguished professor of integrative biology and physiology, neurobiology, and neurosurgery said that even though everyone thought this procedure would work on people who suffered from paralysis for less than a year, it was proven otherwise. 



 

 

"All of our subjects have been paralyzed for more than a year. We know that in a high percentage of subjects who are severely injured, we can improve their quality of life," Edgerton stated. He added, "I get criticized a lot for giving ‘false hope’ but we follow where the science tells us to go and just give the research results. Everything is telling us the nervous system is much more adaptable than we’ve given it credit for and can relearn and recover from severe injury."



 

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