Paralyzed patients walk again with help from pain stimulator

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At least five people whose legs were completely paralyzed are walking again, two of them with no outside help, thanks to a specialized program of therapy and a pain stimulator implanted in their spines, researchers reported Monday.

It’s the latest and most dramatic advance in a new approach to treating spinal cord injuries developed at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

“I would characterize it as breathtaking,” said Peter Wilderotter, president and CEO of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which was not involved in the study.

The reports show that electrical stimulation of the spine, when combined with a very intense and specialized training program, can re-educate the body and help move the legs even though signals from the brain are cut off.

Jeff Marquis, center, with trainers Justin Vogt and Katelyn Smith. Marquis can now walk by himself and live independently.University of Louisville, Kentucky

“The spinal cord can relearn to walk independently,” said Susan Harkema, who leads the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center and who led the team that developed the new approach.

It might be that the spinal cord can act on its own, almost completely without signals from the brain, Harkema told NBC News.

“It can relearn. We can retrain it to function even though there is that injury disconnecting it from the brain,” Harkema said.

Jeff Marquis, 35, walked close to 100 yards in a single session using the device. He can now live independently, without the helper who once had to come get him out of bed every morning.

“I can do that on my own now,” Marquis said.

Marquis was 28 and living an extremely active life as a chef in Whitefish, Montana, when a mountain biking excursion changed his life.

Image: Jeff Marquis
Seven years ago, Marquis was living an extremely active life as a chef in Whitefish, Montana, when a mountain biking excursion changed his life. He broke his neck and was paralyzed from the chest down.Courtesy Jeff Marquis

“I was going down a trail that had a bunch of jumps that I normally skipped,” Marquis said.

“That day, I hadn’t really decided whether I was going around them or I was going to try it for once. I went over it without jumping and I ended up breaking my neck.”

Marquis was paralyzed from the chest down, with only a little movement left in his arms and wrists. He had to learn how to breathe again without a ventilator. Cooking was out of the question, and he moved to Louisville to take part in the team’s project using a Medtronic pain stimulator to try to reignite the powers of the spinal cord.

In 2014, the institute made news when four paralyzed men had their feeling and some movement restored using the device.