A study published on Tuesday revealed that four men who were previously paralyzed for years, are now able to raise their legs.
Thanks to the help of a breakthrough therapy involving epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, growing research is providing hope for those who suffer from paralysis, Healthline News reports.
The study, published in a journal called Brain, was conducted by researchers at University of Louisville, UCLA and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology. It involved implanting an epidural stimulator in four men who were unable to move the lower half off their body.
According to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, about one in 50 people live with paralysis, which is about six million people. 1,275,000 are paralyzed because of spinal cord injury. This number is nearly 33% higher than previous estimates revealed.
It's not the first time electrical stimulation has made paralyzed patients move, CNN reports, but neuroscientist Susan Harkema explained that it is the first time electrical stimulation directly to the spinal cord has brought on voluntary activity. Experts believe this new technique is another step toward helping paralyzed people walk again.
Co-founder of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, Dr. Barth Green also believes this is a breakthrough. While he was not involved in this specific research case, he believes the study has introduced the world to promising developments. "It shows you can have a living spinal cord under the layer of their injury."
CNN warns that although the news is hopeful, patients shouldn't expect that the stimulator will help them walk anytime soon. The stimulator is only able to make one leg work at a time. Studies show that patients have to turn the stimulator off, then back on again to make the other leg work or to make another set of muscles such as their torsos work.
Dustin Shillcox, the fourth patient to try the device, told CNN that although he can't walk, the stimulator has had other benefits. Shillcox now has an improved bowel and bladder function, and improved sexual function.
"That's a difficult thing to go through life not having," he said. "It just changed my entire life. It's extraordinary and amazing."
Tests also showed that patients who were affected by years of paralysis and now benefitted from the stimulator, had improved repiratory and heart functions.
"If you can change health and wellness and life expectancy, to me that's a home run," Dr. Green told CNN. "Remember, [actor] Christopher Reeve died from complications of immobility,"
Harkema, who was present at the time of the breakthrough, believes this has been a great discovery. "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," she said.