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article imageLeaps in paralysis recovery: electrodes, stem cells and nanotech

By Elizabeth Cunningham Perkins     May 21, 2011 in Health
An array of implanted electrodes is helping one paralyzed man step toward recovery, a team of scientists announced. Seeking breakthroughs and treatments for spinal cord injury, researchers also experiment with stem cells, nanotechnology and more.
In a study published in the journal The Lancet, researchers from the University of Louisville, Caltech and UCLA demonstrated, by treating a paraplegic volunteer, how an implanted epidural electrical stimulator that sends signals through this patient's existing neural network instead of trying to bypass it, can restore his ability to stand, move muscles and take steps.
This new approach, combined with extensive physical training, allows him to direct voluntary movements of his of paralyzed limbs by reacting to sensory input. Gradually, the scientists say, he will neurologically re-wire the injured area, activating new connections.
An earlier Digital Journal article describes this project and the tremendous potential it shows for spinal cord injury treatment -- after further research, device tweaking and clinical trials happen.
Millions of Americans live with spinal cord injuries and other forms of paralysis, often suffering debilitating, even devastating, loss of control over vital voluntary bodily functions. Still, many adapt to their situations ingeniously, managing to ride motorcycles or climb mountains, even while hoping for a cure.
As the search for paralysis and spinal cord injury treatments continues, scientists have been researching other approaches recently, besides electrical implants, including stem cell injections and nanotechnology.
A team at Karolinska Institutet claimed they identified dormant stem cells in the spinal cords of mice that activate during injury to produce new cells. Professor Jonas Frisén said of this finding, "The stem cells have a certain positive effect following injury, but not enough for spinal cord functionality to be restored. One interesting question now is whether pharmaceutical compounds can be identified to stimulate the cells to form more support cells in order to improve functional recovery after a spinal trauma."
A human trial of embryonic stem cell injections as a paralysis therapy is in progress at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, according to the Reuters news agency.
At Northwestern University, scientists "nano-engineered" a gel injection designed to aid spinal cord regeneration by self-assembling into a supportive scaffolding for new nerve fibers growing at the injury site, they wrote.
While paralysis patients cope, hope and celebrate breakthroughs, scientists in many fields continue to pursue biological, surgical and technological remedies. Will the most effective fixes turn out to be "all of the above" strategies?
More about Spinal cord injury, Spinal cord injuries, repair spi
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