Those things sitting at the ends of our arms are pretty useful – some might even say handy – for all sorts of jobs. It's not hard to imagine how difficult it would be to complete the simplest of daily tasks if your hands and fingers were paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury. Six people so afflicted have now regained the use of their hands and fingers after participating in a UCLA-led study of a non-surgical, non-invasive spinal stimulation technique.
Of the six study participants, three couldn't move their fingers at all, and none could turn a doorknob with one hand or open a plastic bottle. All had chronic and severe paralysis for at least a year, with some living with paralysis for over 10 years.
The study saw electrodes placed on the skin of the subjects, which delivered an electrical current applied at varying frequencies and intensities to specific parts of the spinal cord. In this way, these non-invasive electrodes stimulated the circuitry of the spinal cord as the subjects participated in training sessions led by the researchers.
These training sessions, which lasted about 90 minutes each, were conducted two times a week over a period of four weeks, and involved the subjects squeezing a small device so the amount of force they exerted could be measured. They had to squeeze the device 18 times with each hand, holding their grip for three seconds.
The researchers reported "significant improvements" in two or three sessions, with greater improvements as the sessions continued.
"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," says study participant Cecilia Villarruel, who sustained her injury in 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. 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."
But regaining the use of their fingers wasn't the only benefit the research subjects experienced, with improvements to blood pressure, bladder function, cardiovascular function and the ability to sit upright without support also resulting from the treatment.
And the improvements remained for an extended period after the treatment. Sixty days after the training, two of the six subjects returned to the lab (travel distance prevented the other four attending), and had retained their grip strength, the ability to open a water bottle, and use a fork with one hand.
"Nearly everyone thought the only people who would benefit from treatment were those who had been injured for less than a year; that was the dogma. Now we know the dogma is dead," says V. Reggie Edgerton, senior author of the research. "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."
The results of the technique can be seen in the video below, and the team's study appears in the Journal of Neurotrauma.
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