Rob Summers stunned doctors at the University of Louisville when, for the first time in five years, he stood on his own two feet. Paralyzed from the waist down after being hit by a car at age 20, the former Oregon State baseball player may one day step back into the batters box thanks to an electrical stimulator attached to his spine. His gleeful reaction is priceless not only for the double entendre but also for the reminder of how historical this medical breakthrough could be. "It was unbelievable," Summers told the New York Times. "There was so much going through my head at that point; I was amazed, was in shock."
Lead by Susan Harkema, the team of researchers in Louisville collaborated with UCLA and the California Institute of Technology in a study to gauge the effects of continual direct electrical current may have on the spinal cords of paralyzed patients. As spinal injury tends only to damage certain segments of the spine, the scientists hypothesized that stimulation via implanted electrodes may stir the intact neurons to compensate. The implant essentially mimics the brain signals normally needed to control motor movement, and along with rigorous physical therapy, may help wheelchair-bound patients walk again, scientists theorized. But they never expected it to happen so fast. Summers, pictured right, was able to stand after only three days of electrical stimulation. By contrast, his previous therapy showed almost no progress after 170 sessions over the course of 26 months. Read (or listen to a podcast of) the full results of the study published in The Lancet.
Doctors say this is just the beginning of discovering how epidural stimulation may help spinal cord injury victims. One day, they hope, a portable unit could lead patients to walk with assistance and secondary conditions like impaired bladder control and sexual response could be improved. Summers couldn't be happier:
This procedure has completely changed my life. For someone who for four years was unable to even move a toe, to have the freedom and ability to stand on my own is the most amazing feeling. To be able to pick up my foot and step down again was unbelievable, but beyond all of that my sense of well-being has changed. My physique and muscle tone has improved greatly--so much that most people don’t even believe I am paralyzed. I believe that epidural stimulation will get me out of this chair.
Godspeed, Rob Summers. And kudos, science. This is a big one.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.