It’s been almost a decade since the motorcycle accident that left Andrew Meas paralyzed from the chest down. He was wearing a helmet, but a driver trying to cross four lanes at once t-boned Meas, breaking his spine at the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. These nerves are close to the neck and some of them control arm and leg movement.
Since then, Meas has spent four year receiving both physical therapy and an experimental treatment called spinal cord epidural stimulation, or scES, under the supervision of a research team at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. All that rehabilitation has finally paid off: He can now move his legs, and recently stood up on his own.
Normally, we move around by sending signals from the brain to the rest of the nervous systems via the spinal cord. Meas’ injury essentially put a huge silencer along that neurological phone line: Even though the brain was making calls to move the legs, they never received the message. So six years after the accident, researchers implanted an epidural device in his spine that could send small electrical signals to the legs where his brain couldn’t. Meas was one of four patients to receive the implant.
The scES worked like an amp: A little electrical stimulation could pick up the lost signal and relay it to the leg nerves. While it’s not a perfect fix—it took Meas four year of physical therapy to re-learn leg movements—the training, particularly his efforts at home, seemed to retrain the spinal cord nerves to hear signals from the brain on their own.
Not only could Meas move his legs, but he could stand on both feet or one foot entirely on his own. (The other three patients in the study were able to recover some leg movement, but not yet to the degree that Meas has).
Typically, a year after a spinal cord injury the damage is thought to be permanent. Meas hadn’t shown improvement after almost two years. But the data from Meas and the three other patients, which the research team published Oct. 26 in Scientific Reports, shows that our nervous system may be more resilient than scientists once thought.
“What is becoming clear after a number of these studies is that a lesion considered clinically complete probably doesn’t mean anatomically complete,” Andrew Jackson, a neurologist studying spinal cord injuries at New Castle University in the UK, told Newsweek. “In many cases, there can be surviving connections that are present but are too weak to generate a movement.” A little extra electrical stimulation can help generate that movement by training these nerves to adapt to new pathways of signals from the brain.
ScES is still an experimental therapy—the handful of successful case studies, including these examples, aren’t enough to suggest this treatment will work for everyone who becomes paralyzed after a severe injury. But they do paint a more hopeful outlook for physical therapies and spinal cord treatments in the future.