Health & Medicine

Electrical stimulation helps paralyzed man

After Rob Summers was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 2006 and left paralyzed from the chest down, he faced the grim prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. And despite three years of intensive therapy, Summers showed no signs of improving.

But after becoming the first patient to undergo an experimental treatment, he can now do something no one else in his condition has ever been able to do: stand up, move his hips, knees and ankles, wiggle his toes and even take a few steps, Summers and his doctors announced Thursday.

"This procedure has completely changed my life," Summers, 25, of Portland, Ore., said of the treatment, which involved stimulating his spinal cord with implanted electrodes. "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."

Summers, an Oregon State University championship pitcher before his accident, remains mostly bound to his wheelchair, and his doctors cautioned that much more research is needed before other paralyzed patients could try the treatment or they would know how much movement it might restore. But the researchers and others said Summers' improvement could herald a new era for at least some paralysis victims.

"This is a breakthrough," said the University of Louisville's Susan Harkema, who led the research, which was described in a paper to be published online Friday by the journal Lancet.

Researchers previously have been able to use electrical stimulation of muscles to produce some movement in patients with spinal-cord injuries. But Summers marks the first time any paralyzed patient has regained the ability to consciously move parts of his body by directly stimulating the spinal cord, which apparently reactivates the nerve circuits that remain intact.

In a commentary being published with the research paper, Gregoire Courtine, Rubia van den Brand and Pavel Musienko of the University of Zurich called Summers' response "unprecedented" in the decades-long search to help paralyzed patients.

"We are entering a new era when the time has come for spinal-cord-injured people to move," they wrote.

The researchers cautioned that the treatment is not a cure for paralysis.

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