Doctors from the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center reported today that a spinal implant is helping return hand strength to a 28 year old man who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2011. The patient, Brain Gomez, became 1 of the world’s 1st patients to have the experimental device implanted into his spine in June last year.
The 32-electrode array was implanted below the site of his spinal cord injury, near the C-5 vertebrae. Spinal cord injuries that occur in the middle of the neck are commonly associated with quadriplegia. The implant works by creating alternative pathways around the spinal injury and therefore re-engaging the brain with the limbs.
“The spinal cord contains alternate pathways that it can use to bypass the injury and get messages from the brain to the limbs,” Dr. Daniel Lu said in prepared remarks. “Electrical stimulation trains the spinal cord to find and use these pathways.”
“If there is an accident on the freeway, traffic comes to a standstill, but there are any number of side streets you can use to detour the accident and get where you are going,” he explained. “It’s the same with the spinal cord.”
While other devices use robotic arms, this implant is designed to improve the patients’ use of their own limbs. The doctors also implanted a small battery pack and processing unit, so that Gomez can regulate the frequency and intensity of the spine stimulation.
“We can dial up or dial down different parameters and program in the stimulator certain algorithms to activate specific electrodes,” Lu said. “It is an ongoing process that retrains the spinal cord and, over time, allows patients to strengthen their grip and regain mobility in their hands.”
Prior to working with Gomez, the team of doctors at UCLA tested the implant on 2 cervical spinal cord injury patients and saw an increase in finger mobility and grip strength of up to 300%. While the team’s goal isn’t to fully restore hand function for the patient, they hope to make it so patients can perform everyday tasks.
“It’s making a huge difference for me,” Gomez explained. He owns a coffee-roasting business in San Dimas, California. “I use an industrial roaster that heats up to 450 degrees and just a few months ago, I reached up to pull a lever to empty a batch of beans after they’d finished roasting. But because I didn’t have the arm or core strength, I burned myself. That doesn’t happen anymore because of the strength and dexterity I’ve developed.”