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Walking Again

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walking again

Sculpture of a walking man, from Germany

Photo © Stefan Eggert

Paralyzed in an Accident:

A hit-and-run car accident in 2006 left Oregon resident Rob Summers with a serious spinal cord injury that paralyzed him from the chest down. Summers, who had been a star pitcher on Oregon State University’s baseball team before the accident, suddenly found himself confined to a wheelchair.

Grim Prognosis:

Three years of physical therapy failed to improve Summers’ condition. He faced the grim prognosis of lifetime paralysis. Despite the overwhelming odds against him, however, Summers dreamed of walking again.

Breakthrough Research:

Years of research helped scientists reach the point where they could use electrical stimulation to move paralyzed patients’ muscles somewhat. But the patients couldn’t just think about how they wanted to move and then be able to do so (as they could when they were healthy), because the nerves between their brains and their spinal cords no longer communicated properly. Then animal studies showed that a new therapy could reactivate nerve circuits -- enabling the brain and paralyzed legs to communicate again – and doctors hoped such an approach would work in humans.

Experimental Treatment:

Doctors chose Summers to become the first patient to try an experimental treatment that they hoped might help him regain the ability to consciously move the lower part of his body. They surgically implanted a strip of electrodes along Summers’ spinal cord. The electrodes emitted signals designed to be similar to those that the brain usually sends to the spinal cord to stimulate movements. Afterward, Summers worked with researchers for two years to determine how he should choose to try to move his body while the electrodes emitted signals, to achieve the exact movements he wanted.

Movement Returns:

Summers regained the ability to move part of his body that had been completely paralyzed. He learned how to move his toes, ankles, knees, and hips. When he was able to stand again, he reported: “It was absolutely incredible. There are not enough words to describe what I felt.”

Taking the Next Step:

Finally, Summers was able to actually walk again. He took some steps on a treadmill, with support from physical therapists and a harness. “At one point it was just a dream, and not it’s a reality, and now I’m taking -- literally -- the next step,” said Summers. Summers plans to keep training to try to walk farther, and maybe even play baseball again someday.
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