20 May 2011

Breakthrough in treatment of paraplegia reported

3:25 pm on 20 May 2011

Scientists in the United States report a breakthrough in the treatment of paraplegia.

A man paralysed from the chest down has regained movement in some of his limbs.

Rob Summers, 25, has been in a wheelchair since he was hit by a car four years ago but now with some help, he has taken his first steps.

It is early days yet, but scientists say their research brings new hope to people with spinal cord injuries. Until recently, Mr Summers could not even wiggle his big toe.

The ABC reports he can now stand for several minutes and with support walk on a treadmill. He is also able to move his hips, knees, ankles and toes and has regained some sexual and bladder function.

He says the scientific breakthrough has been life-changing.

''It was an amazing feeling after not having had anything for four years. At one point it was just a dream and now it is reality and now I am taking literally the next step," he said.

''Being able to move my toes, ankles, knees on command was absolutely incredible.''

The ABC reports this progress has been possible thanks to a process called epidural stimulation.

Professor Susan Harkema of the University of Louisville in Kentucky says the principles of the research can be used regardless of what neurological injury has occurred as long as the body's circuitry has not been damaged.

She says it is hoped the research will lead to some people with spinal cord injuries standing, balancing and maybe even walking independently.

''We implanted an epidural stimulator and an electrode ray with the intent of accessing special circuitry in the spinal cord and - in essence, (activating) it,'' she said.

Despite the results, the ABC reports the researchers caution that much more work needs to be done.

Mr Summers has limited feeling below the waist but it is not known if the treatment will work on patients who have no sensation.

Findings from the research have been published in the medical journal The Lancet.