Implanted device has paralyzed people walking again

A new study has shown a neurostimulator initially approved to manage pain can help those suffering from paralysis walk again


Kelly Thomas and Jeff Marquis, individuals who both suffered from paralysis, have been two of the first people to achieve successful results from a revolutionary new spinal cord implant nicknamed Junior, having since regained some feeling and ability to walk by themselves.

Details of the experiment, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, illustrated how the cutting-edge treatment affected the individuals who participated in the study, conducted at the University of Louisville.

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Kelly Thomas, who became paralyzed after a truck accident, has since regained muscle density in her legs and no longer suffers from the persistent foot nerve pain she had struggled with since the initial accident. She was also able to walk 100 yards unassisted, despite still being a bit off-balance. However, not everyone who took part in the study experienced the same level of success.

The implant, RestoreAdvanced SureScan MRI Neurostimulator, was created by Medtronic and was originally approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a method of pain management. However, research on lab rats and other patients suffering from paralysis has shown that spinal stimulation can help reinstate some level of movement and feeling in previously unresponsive limbs, although exactly why it works is still up for debate.

"I have to have a remote to turn myself on and off, and when it's off I'm completely paralyzed," said Thomas, who operates the device via a remote which communicates with a hub implanted in her abdomen. "Whenever it's on I can kick my legs out, I can walk, I can move my toes. I can do pretty much anything I need to do," she added.

While the treatment did not work for every patient it was tried on, the hope is that it has potential to bring some level of independence and improve both the physical and emotional well-being for the 1.3 million people in the US who are paralyzed as a result of a spinal cord injury.

Susan Harkema, senior author of the paper and associate director of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville said: "There's no real treatment for people with this type of injury. This isn't taking them back to before their injury, but it's giving them significant, incremental return of function, and health — and that can make their daily lives substantially better."

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