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January 28, 2021

Stimulating research could be moving for people with spinal cord injuries

Using physical therapy combined with a noninvasive method of stimulating nerve cells in the spinal cord, University of Washington researchers helped six Seattle area participants regain some hand and arm mobility. That increased mobility lasted at least three to six months after treatment had ended.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Nice moves.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Among those paralyzed with spinal cord injuries, usually the first priority in therapy is to work to regain use of the hands. In many cases, intense physical therapy can help restore some function.

There's been huge advances recently helping patients walk using surgical implants that deliver electrical stimulation directly to the spine. Now, researchers at the University of Washington have demonstrated a way -- without surgery -- to supercharge the progress of regaining hand movement.

External skin patches that deliver electrical pulses -- applied to back of the neck over the damaged areas of the spine. The pulses don't cause a muscle to move but get it ready -- prime it to move when the patient wants it to.

Six people with spinal cord injuries were recruited for the 5-month study combinations of physical therapy with this external stimulation and 3 months follow-up. Results? Nothing short of amazing.

During stimulation, those with no hand movement could move their hands, showing measurable force between thumb and forefinger. Others went from no use of their hands in daily tasks to being able to play a guitar or use a paint brush on canvas. These effects remained even after six months, as long as could be measured, with no additional stimulation.

Helping patients regain physical movement and independence.

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