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Experimental Spinal Treatment Enables Paralyzed Patients To Walk Again

Three patients, all paralyzed from the waist down, can walk again thanks to an electrical patch fitted to their spinal cords.

The BBC reports that the device, which is placed just below the injury, helps lost signals from the brain reach the leg muscles. Both Nature Medicine and the New England Journal of Medicine have recently penned articles describing the research undertaken by two separate teams - one from the University of Louisville and the other from the Mayo Clinic. These patients' progress is considered an important medical advancement, according to the two scientific journals.

The New England Journal of Medicine describes how the patients with "motor complete spinal cord injury" -- meaning no voluntary movement below their injury -- were able to walk again with the aid of walkers, after being implanted with a spinal cord stimulation device and undergoing extensive physical therapy.

The patch does not repair the damage but circumvents it by stimulating nerves lower down in the spinal cord. This appears to allow signals from the brain to reach the target muscles so the person can voluntarily control their own movements again.

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23-year-old Kelly Thomas, from Florida, is part of this innovative research conducted at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center of the University of Louisville. The young woman had been confined to a wheelchair since the age of 19 when she lost the use of her legs in a car accident. She says her life has been completely transformed by the technology.

"The first day I took steps on my own was an emotional milestone in my recovery that I'll never forget, as one minute I was walking with the trainer's assistance and while they stopped, I continued walking on my own. It's amazing what the human body can accomplish with help from research and technology."

Adding to the excitement of these advancements, another study published Monday in the journal Nature Medicine unveiled similar results. 29-year-old Jered Chinnoc, shown below, was treated at the Mayo Clinic in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles. He injured his spine in 2013 in a snowmobile accident. Since having the patch fitted he has been able to walk more than 100m with the support of a frame.

A third patient, Jeff Marquis, who was injured in a mountain-biking accident, has also benefited. The 35-year-old is now able to walk for himself with support either from a frame or from people on either side of him holding his hands.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Kendall Lee, who co-led the team from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said that while the results are "very exciting", they are still very early in the research stage, but she added that it definitely gives hope to all the people faced with paralysis out there.

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