|13 December 2016|

USA

A Californian man who broke his neck in an accident five years ago is recovering hand strength and movement thanks to a spinal stimulator implant.

Scientists at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center positioned the 32-electrode stimulator below the site of Brian Gomez’s spinal-cord injury and it boosted his movement.

“The spinal cord contains alternate pathways that it can use to bypass the injury and get messages from the brain to the limbs,” said Daniel Lu, M.D., Ph.D. , an associate professor of neurosurgery and director of UCLA’s neuroplasticity and repair laboratory and the neuromotor recovery and rehabilitation center. “Electrical stimulation trains the spinal cord to find and use these pathways.”

Lu compared it to a commute on a busy motorway. “If there is an accident on the freeway, traffic comes to a standstill, but there are any number of side streets you can use to detour the accident and get where you are going,” he said. “It’s the same with the spinal cord.”

As part of the approach, doctors also ‘implant a small battery pack and processing unit under the skin of the patient’s lower back’. It fits in the plam of the hand and is paired ‘with a remote control that patients and doctors use to regulate the frequency and intensity of the stimulation’.

“We can dial up or dial down different parameters and program in the stimulator certain algorithms to activate specific electrodes,” said Lu. “It is an ongoing process that retrains the spinal cord and, over time, allows patients to strengthen their grip and regain mobility in their hands.”

The UCLA team performed the world’s first implant surgeries of this kind on two cervical spinal-cord injury patients prior to Gomez. Lu and his colleagues saw an increase in finger mobility and grip strength of up to 300%.

Gomez, who owns a coffee-roasting business in his hometown of San Dimas, California, said: “It’s making a huge difference for me. I use an industrial roaster that heats up to 450 degrees and just a few months ago, I reached up to pull a lever to empty a batch of beans after they’d finished roasting.”But because I didn’t have the arm or core strength, I burned myself. That doesn’t happen anymore because of the strength and dexterity I’ve developed.”

The UCLA team isn’t aiming to fully restore hand function, rather it aims to faciliate a level of improvement which allows patients to perform everyday tasks. Though further progress can be expected as the technology advances.