Standing Up to Paralysis: Christopher Reeve’s Dream (Finally) Comes True
By directly stimulating the spine, researchers have given four men the power to stand up from their wheelchairs, something Reeve only dreamed of.
By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
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Sanjay Gupta, MD, Everyday Health: Actor Christopher Reeve always believed he would walk again. He made this famous Super Bowl ad five years after the horse riding accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
Reeve never did walk, but his dream did not end with his death in 2004. The foundation he created helped to push the research on spinal cord injuries into high gear. And now we are seeing the results.
Dustin Shillcox lost the use of his legs five years ago in a car accident. You’re about to see him do something Christopher Reeve only dreamed of.
Dustin Shillcox: So right here in my stomach, you can feel there’s a little brain box. And from there, there’s a wire that goes to my back which is where the stimulator is.
Sanjay Gupta: Shillcox is one of four young men with spinal cord injuries who agreed to be the first to try an experimental device — an electrical stimulator placed directly on the spine.
Dustin Shillcox: I was paralyzed from the nipple line down. I have no sensation, no mobility, and no bit of feeling or sensation below my injury.
Sanjay Gupta: But with the stimulator turned on, he can do this. [Shillcox stands.]
So how does it work? If you lean forward far enough in a chair, you'll stand almost automatically. That’s because of a group of neurons in a part of the spine called a central pattern generator. These neurons move the hips, the knees, the ankles, and the toes with very little involvement from the brain. And that’s where the electrical stimulator is placed.
Susan Harkema, PhD, Frazier Rehab Institute and the University of Louisville in Kentucky: It reminds the spinal cord of its potential. So now a tiny little signal that may be just remaining of intent can come down and generate a toe to move, or generate the leg to move.
Sanjay Gupta: But the device surprised everyone, because it did more than allow these men to stand. Remember, paralysis is just the most visible result of a spinal cord injury.
Dustin Shillcox: You lose control of your bowel, your bladder, your sexual function, the ability to control your blood pressure, and sweating. So it changes a lot more than just not being able to walk.
Sanjay Gupta: And Shillcox and the other men have seen some of these functions return.
Dustin Shillcox: That stuff, it just came back on its own. Like, I don’t have to turn it on for that. Those are feelings that I have all the time.
Sanjay Gupta: We met Shillcox training for the New York City Marathon. All four of the men chosen to try the stimulator are young and athletic. The Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation is now raising money to implant another 36 people, including older people. Alan Brown, who was training this day with Dustin, wants to be in that next group.
Alan T. Brown: I’m trying to stay as fit as I can to hopefully be one of those. I want to be the old man on the block who gets that.
Sanjay Gupta: Alan became a quadriplegic when he was flipped over by a wave while swimming in the ocean. He knew Christopher Reeve well.
Alan T. Brown: Chris wanted to get up badly. I think that he would be … I mean, this would be unbelievable for him. I think he’s looking at us right now smiling.
Sanjay Gupta: For Everyday Health, I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Be well.
Video: Christopher Reeve
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