University of Louisville Made Breakthrough Possible for Paraplegic Man

by Dalton Main on May 20, 2011

A team of scientists and doctors at Louisville’s Frazier Rehab Institute have helped a paraplegic man stand on his own for almost four minutes and later, with assistance, take steps. The team is a combined group from the University of Louisville, UCLA and the California Institute of technology.

UofL Professor of Neurosurgery Dr. Susan Harkema has been working on research the doctors used for 15 years, but she says the Louisville community has been essential in making this breakthrough possible. According to Harkema, the state’s Bucks for Brains program created a unique research environment at U of L by financing hospital administrators, medical researchers, clinicians and academics who all work together.

“It takes all those arenas to really move something, you can have a good idea,” Harkema says “but if you don’t have the support and resources to move it forward, all it is is a good idea.”

The medical team studied electrical signals in the nervous system. They found that the spinal cord is responsible for translating signals from the brain into muscle movement. Researchers were able to substitute an electrical stimulus for the signals that would normally allow the man to control movement. Harkema says the research could have even more wide-ranging benefits for other patients.

“What people don’t understand is that people with paralysis have challenges, extreme challenges everyday,” she says  “it’s not just that they can’t walk, and one of the aspects of this is that what we’re doing seems to address those issues as well.”

The team published the information in the British medical journal The Lancet.

The Bucks for Brains program was instituted by the Kentucky Legislature in 1997 and matches private gifts with state funds for scientific research at universities.

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