The findings, published in Scientific Reports (one of the Nature journals), suggest that damaged spinal tissue in some people with paraplegia can be retrained to a certain extent — somewhat the way certain people can regain some brain function following stroke though repetition and practice. In fact, this isn’t a new idea for treating injuries of the spinal cord. Even people with severe injuries can regain some sensation and function through physical therapy if some nerve fibers remain.
The eight paralyzed people in the Brazilian study didn’t regain enough mobility to support their own weight on their legs, but Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist and physician with Duke University who led the research, says his experimental subjects did make “partial recovery” — improvements that significantly helped their quality of life. They had better control of bowel and bladder functions, he says. Some men were able to have erections and one woman decided to deliver a baby vaginally. “She could feel the baby for the first time,” he says. “She could feel the contractions.”
The study of the first 12 months of training didn’t document the most dramatic quality-of-life improvements that Nicolelis announced in a telephone briefing with reporters. But it did describe some of the improvements in sensation and movement.
Nicolelis previously garnered worldwide publicity for his work by arranging for one of his patients to kick out a ceremonial soccer ball during the World Cup tournament in Rio de Janeiro in 2014. The build-up for that moment was more dramatic than the actual event. But it did highlight Nicolelis’ ambitious efforts to help people with paralysis improve their mobility through robotics, through an international scientific collaboration known as the Walk Again Project.
Other research groups are pursuing similar strategies, and there are several products on the market that …