After suffering a stroke, Heather Rendulic was left with limited use of her left arm and hand, making it difficult for her to do daily activities such as tying shoes or chopping meals.
The woman shared via The Associated Press that “I live one handed in a two handed world and you do not realize how many things you need two hands for until you only have one good one.”
Rendulic agreed to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in which scientists implanted a device able to zap her spine in regions that regulate hand and arm mobility.
She was able to grab and move items when they turned it on, including moving a soup container, unlocking a lock, and, towards the end of the 4-week research, slicing a steak!
The progress unfortunately stopped after researchers removed the implant, so it’s not a cure, and the pilot trial only involved Rendulic and one other stroke victim.
However, the preliminary findings, which were released on Monday, represent a step toward one day regaining movement for this exceedingly prevalent kind of paralysis.
Neurologist Dr. Jason Carmel, who was not involved in the experiment, says that “They’re not just getting flickers of movement. They’re getting something important. It’s a very exciting proof of concept.”
Every year, over 800,000 Americans get a stroke.
More than half of patients still have permanently reduced arm and hand function, which can vary from muscular weakness to paralysis, even after months of therapy.
Numerous research teams have conducted experiments to see whether implanting electrodes to stimulate the spine can help patients regain mobility in their legs and feet.
Some of these patients have even taken their first steps after receiving this treatment.
However, upper-limb paralysis, which is fundamentally more challenging, has been the focus of little study.
For the shoulder to raise, the wrist to swivel, and the hand to flex, the brain must send signals to several nerves.
Stroke damage hinders the transmission of such signals.
The study’s leader, Marco Capogrosso, explains that “People still retain some of the connection, they are just not enough to enable movement. These messages are weaker than normal.”
His plan was to stimulate a network of connected nerves to improve their capacity of detecting and take in the weak signal coming from the brain.
“We aren’t bypassing their control. We are enhancing their capabilities to move their own arm,” he mentioned.
Researchers employed implants which are currently used to stimulate the spine for the treatment of chronic pain.
The implants have electrodes that are positioned on the spinal cord’s surface to provide electrical pulses to the nerve cells, which are located in the neck area of the spine and are responsible for hand and arm control.
As soon as the stimulator got turned on, both Rendulic and another, more seriously disabled volunteer could move more easily.
By the end of the trial, both volunteers also showed enhanced muscular strength, dexterity, and range of motion.
Unexpectedly, both subjects continued to make progress for approximately a month following the implants’ removal.
Since having a stroke in her 20s, Rendulic, 33, was engaging in certain fine motor activities for the first time.
Her entire left side was originally paralyzed by a stroke, which struck her at an abnormally young age due to frail blood arteries bleeding inside her brain.
With the exception of those 4 weeks of spinal stimulation, she regained her ability to walk, but she is still unable to fully lift her left arm or open her left hand.
Rendulic stated that “You feel like there’s a barrier between your brain and your arm. I could immediately sense that, like, my arm and hand are still there.”
It makes sense, according to two other researchers who contributed to the development of studies activating the lower limbs of those with spinal cord injuries, to attempt the technique for stroke.
The latest findings “are highly encouraging,” said Mayo Clinic professor Peter Grahn, though larger and more extensive investigations are still required.
Professor Susan Harkema noted that researchers have learned a lot from studies on lower limbs that “it may not matter where the injury occurs, if it is something in the brain or it is a spinal cord injury. Targeting the human spinal cord circuitry has quite a lot of potential.”
Capogrosso is currently investigating the method in a small number of additional stroke victims with support from the National Institutes of Health.
The researchers have also established a firm to further the technique.