Woody Allen once said, “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” And you don’t have to tell that to neuroscientist Reggie Edgerton, whose innovations have helped the paralyzed walk again.
Since 1990, Edgerton and his research team at UCLA have studied how to wake up the spinal cord following paralysis. Since the spinal cord carries brain signals needed to control movement in our limbs, when the cord is damaged, the communication between brain and body no longer happens.
Edgerton spent years testing his ideas that if you could somehow stimulate the nerve fibers of the spinal cord, those fibers would wake up enough to coordinate movement, even if the brain was not sending any signals. Research initially started, as it often does, with rats.
The team at UCLA spent years studying the effects of implanting electrodes in paralyzed rats and stimulating spinal cord nerve fibers while moving the animal’s legs in a stepping motion. After four to eight weeks of training, the paralyzed rats were moving again.
Without question, Edgerton encountered numerous setbacks during his research, and what worked for rats did not necessarily translate to humans. But he learned from the setbacks, and in 2009 Edgerton and his team implanted electrodes in the spinal cord of paralyzed former basketball player Rob Summers.
After three days of treadmill therapy, where electrodes were stimulated while the team moved Summers’ legs, Summers stood on his own. He voluntarily moved his toes, ankles, knees, and hips on command. And since then, several other patients experienced similar success.
But Edgerton is far from satisfied. The next step is to help patients go from standing to walking, which will involve many more setbacks to achieve the next level of innovation.
Thanks to Reggie Edgerton and his team and their refusal to give up, what was once thought to be impossible is now moving closer to reality. And that is inspirational to everyone who is working hard to achieve a goal that at the moment seems out of reach.