Researchers Developing Therapy to Treat Paralysis

A team of researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio are developing a new therapy that will help paralysis victims regain control of their muscles.

Functional Electrical Stimulation uses electric currents to stimulate muscles that no longer receive messages from the brain.

“When someone has a spinal cord injury, it’s like they cut an electrical wire,” Brian Heidenreich, associate professor of psychology, said. “The neurons that control muscles in the spinal cord are still there, but they don’t get any messages from the brain.”

Strokes may also damage or limit interaction between the brain and the muscles.

“Strokes wipe out the motor cortex, which controls motor movement in the body,” Heidenreich said.

Organizations like the Food and Drug Administration, the State of Ohio and the National Institute of Health provide funding for FES research.

“The majority of the research programs at the Cleveland FES Center focus on spinal cord injury (SCI) and stroke,” Mary Buckett, Cleveland FES researcher, said. “SCI programs at the FES Center vary and range from high level tetraplegia to incomplete paraplegia.”

The actual treatment is an implanted prosthesis that restores communication between the brain and the muscles.

Researchers can also make the frontal lobe – the part of the brain that controls learning and thought – perform the tasks of the motor cortex with an FES device.

“It is possible to get brain regions to take over functions that weren’t theirs originally,” Heidenreich said.

Other FES programs focus on illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis and Osteoporosis. The programs are located in countries like Argentina, Canada, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy.

A majority of the volunteers at the Cleveland center, Buckett said, have already sought traditional therapies. For them, FES treatment is seen as an additional opportunity to regain the ability to stand, apply make-up or write. In MS patients, FES therapy can reduce hand tremors by 50 percent.

The therapy may also restore basic bladder, breathing and hearing functions and eliminate the occurrence of urinary tract infections, loss of bone density and muscular atrophy.

Buckett, a former architect, explained in an FES Center document that her implant allows her to live as she did before she became paralyzed.

“I am less dependent on … people to take notes in class for me or manipulate books and papers on my shelves and desk,” she said.

“It has been amazing to witness individuals regaining function and independence,” Buckett said. “To see someone stand from their wheelchair with pride and confidence and shake hands whilebeing introduced is a wonderful thing.”

FES therapy still needs to go through additional testing, research, technological advances and FDA approval before researchers submit it for widespread use.

“This study is clearly a step toward making a device _that allows movement by people with paralysis, but it’s one in a series that may achieve that goal,” Heidenreich said.

By: Joanna Pelletier

Posted on October 27th, 2008 in Research for a Cure, Therapies and Procedures. Tagged: