Spinal stimulator bypasses injury to help patients move hands

Implanted spinal simulator may aid in returning hand strength and movement.
By Amy Wallace   |   Dec. 13, 2016 at 2:09 PM

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- There is hope for people who have had a spinal cord injury to regain strength and movement in their hands, researchers are reporting.

Doctors at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center have implanted a spinal stimulator into a man who broke his neck in a dirt bike riding accident five years ago.

Brian Gomez, 28, of California, was one of the first patients in the world to have a spinal stimulator implanted in June 2016.

Scientists from UCLA placed the 32-electrode stimulator below the site of his spinal cord injury near the C-5 vertebrae in his neck, an area most associated with complete loss of use of all four limbs or quadriplegia.

This surgery is unique because the stimulator is implanted into the spine instead of the brain and is designed to boost the patients' ability to move their own hands.

Prior to Gomez's surgery, other devices that have shown promise in treating paralysis either involved animals or relied on robotic arms instead of the patient's own hands.

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

Along with the stimulator, doctors implant a small battery pack and processing unit under the skin of the patient's lower back. The device is small enough to fit in the palm of the hand and is paired with a remote control that patients and doctors use to regulate the frequency and intensity of the stimulation.

"It's making a huge difference for me," Gomez, who runs a coffee-roasting business, said in a statement. "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."

Prior to this surgery, people with spinal cord injuries usually had a window of just a few months between injury and rehabilitation in order to get or maintain partial use of their hands. The improvement Gomez has experienced, despite five years passing between injury and surgery, is encouraging for doctors.

"Even though he was injured in 2011, in many ways Brian is a perfect candidate for this experimental treatment," Lu said in a press release. "He still has head-to-toe sensation, so he can give us feedback as we fine tune the stimulator. And he is such a positive and motivated young man."

Prior to Gomez's surgery, the UCLA team performed the world's first implant surgeries of this kind on two cervical spinal cord injury patients and saw a 300 percent increase in finger movement and grip strength, but not whole hand movement.

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