Five years ago, neuroscientist Susan Harkema made an accidental discovery in her research lab at the University of Louisville. While working with a paralyzed patient to learn more about nerve pathways, she found that when electrical stimulation is applied directly to the spinal cord, many patients regain some voluntary movement.
"I think what's incredibly exciting is we've opened up a realm of possibilities of what we can do now with people who are paralyzed, and we've just scratched the surface," Harkema tells CNN.
This isn't the first time electrical stimulation has been used to make paralyzed patients move, but every new technique increases the chances that a patient will regain motor skills. After the initial success, Harkema and her team applied electrical stimulation to three more paralyzed patients, and all of them wiggled their big toes, moved their ankles, and could even sit up without support. The patients then had a remote-controlled stimulator device surgically implanted into the lower abdomen. While experts say this won't allow the patients to walk (the device only affects one leg at a time), there are other health benefits, including improved respiratory and heart function.
The results of the study were published Tuesday in the journal Brain. Watch the device in action in the video below. --Catherine Garcia