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Implanted electrodes help partially paralyzed man walk
BY JULIE SEVRENS LYONS Mercury News

Scientists have helped a partially paralyzed man walk the length of three football fields by implanting electrodes in his spine.

While it doesn't quite make Arizona quadriplegic Ken Paulson the bionic man, it does allow him to walk farther, faster and with less effort.

Researchers say that if they can prove the therapy works on a large scale, it could help perhaps one-third of the country's 230,000 spinal cord patients -- those who still have some feeling in their legs and some control of their leg muscles.

``This will not take the wheelchair away from me completely, but it has given me a whole new perspective -- independence,'' said Paulson, 45, who was injured in a 1997 car accident. ``You put me in the Back Forty of a Wal-Mart parking lot now and I can probably walk to the door.''

Researchers stress that while Paulson had positive results, other people may not. Large-scale studies are needed, they said. Even after more than a year of physical therapy, Paulson cannot climb stairs or walk backward.

Researchers from Arizona State University and Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Phoenix reported Paulson's recovery in the journal Spinal Cord.

The experimental procedure, which is not yet available to other patients, involves having patients walk on treadmills while their weight is supported by a harness. This retrains the legs on how to walk.

Later, doctors implant electrodes on the spinal cord to stimulate the neuro circuit, which coordinates leg muscles. Although both have been tried separately in the past, this is the first time they have been used in combination.

``The results were way beyond my expectation,'' said Jiping He, a professor of bioengineering at Arizona State, who was involved in the research. ``I thought we would see some improvements, that he could make a bathroom trip or get into the shower stall, but now he can walk across the street.''

After treadmill therapy alone, Paulson could walk 10 feet in two minutes, He said. But after the electrodes were implanted, Paulson could walk more than 100 feet in the same two minutes, and has worked up to walking 1,000 feet before getting tired. Doctors hope he'll be able to switch from a walker to a cane for balance.

Jessica Agramonte, senior research scientist and gait specialist at Stanford University Medical School, said that while the results are promising, ``One must be very cautious in interpreting a single case study, particularly for patients with incomplete spinal injury -- they can have a very individual course of recovery.''

Others called it a move in the right direction.

``The research should definitely excite some interest. This could have some help for patients with multiple sclerosis and those with incomplete spinal cord injuries,'' said Dr. Inder Perkash, director of the spinal cord injury program at Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care System.

But Perkash noted that patients must be highly motivated and willing to exercise frequently and push their limits.

``It's a lot of work,'' Perkash cautioned. ``If a patient does not exercise and maintain his muscle tone, he will regress.''

Although any developments in the area of spinal cord research are exciting, some patient advocates said, the field still has a far way to go.

``Being able to walk 1,000 feet is great, but that's not going to get you a job,'' said Marcie Roth, executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. ``It's not going to address a lot of the critical challenges that people with spinal cord injuries face every day.''


Staff writers Barbara Feder and Glennda Chui contributed to this report.

Contact Julie Sevrens Lyons at jlyons@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5989