Victory over paralysis via electrical implants in the spine

Scientists have made a massive breakthrough when it comes to using technology to help those who have been paralysed.

Boffins at the University of Louisville (in conjunction with the Frazier Rehab Institute) have helped four men, who were thought to be permanently paralysed in car accidents (or hit-and-run incidents), to move their legs again.

Wired reports that Susan Harkema, one of the University of Louisville professors involved in the research – which has been published in the journal Brain – said that: "The belief that no recovery is possible and complete paralysis is permanent has been challenged."

The breakthrough uses an epidural implant which delivers electricity to the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that come from the brain. There have been previous studies into this, but in this latest effort, the men could control and move their limbs straight away – and they showed a surprisingly rapid improvement as the trials went on, needing lesser currents to instigate movement. In other words, their neural pathways were making new connections and improving, and literally retraining the spinal cord to "think" differently.

Rob Summers, one of the men involved, said: "I've got a lot of function back, including my hands, I've gotten back my ability to stand, move my toes, ankles, knees, hips, all on command. I've gotten back a very good sensation of feeling as well as the other things people don't think about – bladder function, bowel function, sexual function, the ability to sweat."

Commenting on the project, Larry Benz, CEO of PT Development, said: "We've got a research and scientific community that is winning – they're not just getting functional recovery in patients, they're getting true victory over paralysis."