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Entries in Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation (1)

Thursday
May192011

Paraplegic Moves Legs Voluntarily for First Time

Medioimages/Photodisc/Thinkstock(PORTLAND, Ore.) -- Many who know hometown baseball star Rob Summers call him Superman. Since age six, Summers, now 25, was a champion pitcher in his hometown of Portland, Ore. In 2006, after his team at Oregon State University won the College World Series, Rob dreamed of going into the Major Leagues.

But he never knew that his nickname would ring true until July 2006, when he was struck in a hit-and-run accident and became paralyzed below the neck.

And nearly three years after his paralysis, through clinical research supported by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, Summers stood on his own and took his first step. Summers became the first paralysis patient to undergo a procedure that uses his own nerve impulses to help move parts of his body that he was told he would never use again.

In December 2009, doctors implanted an electric nerve stimulator in Summers' spine, below the area that was damaged. When the stimulator is turned on, a panel of 16 electrodes reactivates the nerves in Summers' spinal cord, helping him move his muscles on his own.

During a therapy session a few months after the procedure, Summers, surrounded by researchers and family, discovered he could voluntarily wiggle his toes.

Nearly 1.3 million Americans are living with spinal cord injuries, and 5.6 million Americans live with some form of paralysis, according to the Reeve Foundation.

Although robotic devices are increasingly used to help control movement, nerve stimulation manipulates a person's own impulses to move.

For decades, researchers have looked at stimulating nerves in the spinal cords of paralyzed mice.

"It's been very exciting to be able to show it happens to humans," said Dr. Susan Harkema, the lead researcher and a professor in the department of neurological surgery at the University of Louisville.

Many people paralyzed by spinal cord injuries endure complications beyond the initial injury. Paralyzed patients have a higher likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes, mostly because paralysis leaves them sedentary.

But standing has helped improve Summers' circulation, regain his muscle strength, and helped boost his confidence.

The procedure is still in early phases of human research and has not been FDA approved. Harkema says further trials will be able to tell better what types of patients would benefit from this procedure.

"I've worked with spinal cord injuries for 15 years, anything that can reduce that suffering is fantastic," said Harkema. "This approach has the potential to take people past the limits of a wheelchair."

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ABC News Radio