New Device Delivers Electric Pulses to Help Patients Regain Movement After Spinal Cord Injuries

Alongside physical therapy, the electric stimulation helped patients with tetraplegia improve mobility in their arms and hands in a small trial

An artist's rendering shows where Arc-Ex is placed on a person's neck to stimulate electric pulses on their spinal cord.
Electrodes, placed above and below the injury, provide electric stimulation during rehabilitation, in this artist's rendering of the new Arc-Ex device. Moritz et al., Nature Medicine, 2024

An experimental medical device called Arc-Ex, which stimulates a patient’s spinal nerves with electric pulses, appeared to incrementally improve arm and hand function in a small trial of patients with tetraplegia—a condition in which one is partially or totally paralyzed from the neck down.

Sixty volunteers completed the trial, which was conducted by more than one dozen physicians and researchers in hospitals across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Published last week in the journal Nature Medicine, findings from this initial test offer hopeful signs: After treatment, 43 people showed improvements in arm and hand strength and function, while 52 people said their quality of life had improved.

Many of the volunteers had experienced little or no improvement in mobility for years and say that even incremental progress represented a big step forward.

“To see benefits at this point in my injury is really huge,” Sherown Campbell, who participated in the trial from Colorado and was paralyzed in 2014, says to the Guardian’s Ian Sample. The device has helped him increase his typing speed by 30 percent, and he now can better grip the steering wheel while driving, open jars and tie balloons.

Clinical Video 1

Melanie Reid, a journalist with the London Times who was paralyzed 14 years ago, also participated in the study and noted the device’s contribution to her own progress.

“I can undo my seatbelt with my left thumb. I now trust this hand to lift a cup of coffee. I can pick up small things and do tasks like straining rice with hot water,” she tells BBC News Pallab Ghosh. “There are no miracles in spinal injury, [but] if this device is able to allow someone with tetraplegia to lift their arm to put food in their mouth or to have a drink, that is life-changing.”

Researchers, including some involved in this study, have previously developed devices that, in small trials, helped paralyzed people to walk, swim and cycle. These inventions, however, have been surgically implanted into the spine. In contrast, the new device is a non-invasive therapy that requires only placing electrodes on a patient’s skin.

The trial participants weren’t reliant on Arc-Ex alone—they first spent two months doing extensive arm and hand rehabilitation exercises three times per week, without using the device. Then, they spent another two months on the same rehabilitation schedule, adding in the electrical stimulations. This combination of technical help and occupational therapy, the researchers say, is crucial.

ARC-EX Explainer Video

Scientists are still working to pinpoint exactly how the device helps patients’ recovery. In non-paralyzed people, the brain sends electrical signals to a person’s hands and arms through the spine to initiate their movement. But for someone with tetraplegia, these electrical signals can be weakened. Arc-Ex electrodes, which are placed in strategic locations on the back of the patient’s neck, are meant to strengthen those signals as they pass from brain to limb.

In previous studies with animals, electrical stimulation has even been shown to help new nerves grow, which could enable patients to continue experiencing benefits after the device is turned off, reports MIT Technology Review’s Cassandra Willyard.

“This is not a cure, it’s important to stress that, but we’re at the beginning of a journey that makes recovery from spinal injury a real possibility,” Grégoire Courtine, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and a co-author of the study, tells the Guardian.

People with spinal injuries make the majority of their recovery progress within about one year of their injury. As such, the researchers hope that this treatment, after further study and improvements, can eventually be made available for patients who are just beginning rehabilitation.

“This trial had a small number of patients, but hopefully we will see great things to come,” Rob Brownstone, a neurologist at University College London who was not involved with the study, tells New Scientist’s Clare Wilson.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently analyzing the study for Arc-Ex’s safety and significance. If satisfied, the agency may approve the technology, produced by Onward Medical, which Courtine co-founded, for use in American hospitals.

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