Electrical implant reduces side effects from man's spinal cord injury

By Allen Cone  |  Feb. 19, 2018 at 4:06 PM
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Feb. 19 (UPI) -- An experimental electrical treatment has reduced side effects of a spinal cord injury that paralyzed a Canadian man in a diving accident.

Six years ago, Isaac Darrel, of Langley, British Columbia, dove into murky waters and hit a rock while river boating. In the years following, he dealt with dizziness, fluctuations in blood pressure and changes in bladder and bowel function -- issues often referred to as the "invisible" fallout from a spinal cord injury.

In a case study published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers say a 2016 effort to deal with the fallout by implanted electrodes over his spinal cord, a procedure called epidural stimulation, has been successful.

"Mobility issues or paralysis are the most visible consequences of a spinal cord injury but as a clinician, I know that many of my patients suffer from other 'invisible' consequences," Dr. Andrei Krassioukov, principal investigator of the study at the University of British Columbia, said in a release.

Krassioukov, a professor of medicine at UBC and chairman in rehabilitation research, worked with Darrel at ICORD, a Vancouver research center focused on spinal cord injuries.

The programs are designed to stimulate specific nerves that help with various motor functions, but Darrel and the researchers noted other positive changes.

Epidural stimulation involves permanently implanting electrodes over the spinal cord and stimulating nerve cells using remote-controlled electical currents.

Darrel uses the stimulator for up to 45 minutes each day, applying different programs to transmit electrical impulses into his spinal cord that mimic signals that would come from the brain.

"I've had better blood pressure, better core muscle, much improved bowel function, and basically I have more energy," said Darrel, who said he now can sit in his wheelchair for up to eight hours compared with the two hours he could endure before the surgery.

The disorder he experienced after his injury, orthostatic hypotension, results from poor cardiovascular function.

"My blood pressure would tank right down into the 60s," said Darrel, who describes feeling nauseous and felt like he was spinning. "I would pass out or black out sitting in my chair sometimes. Now, since I have the implant, I'm able to turn up the stimulation enough that it makes it impossible for me to black out."

The researchers are working with colleagues in the United States on a larger trial, they say, as well as with researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles on another device to stimulate the spinal cord by positioning it on top of the skin .

"We see very interesting and exciting results but as a clinician-scientist, I need more robust data before I would recommend this procedure," he said.

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