According to a recent study conducted by experts from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, spinal cord stimulation can significantly increase arm and hand mobility in patients who have experienced mild to severe strokes. Through the use of two tiny metal electrodes placed along the neck, this ground-breaking medical device enables stroke patients to move their arm in previously unfeasible ways. The study’s results, which were reported in Nature Medicine, provides great hope to those living with impairments that were once deemed permanent.
Stroke affects a significant portion of the global population, and every fourth adult over the age of 25 is at risk. Unfortunately, 75% of stroke patients experience long-term deficits in motor control of their arm and hand. Currently, there are no effective treatments for paralysis in the chronic stage of stroke, which begins approximately six months after the stroke incident. The new technology, however, has the potential to change that.
The researchers discovered that electrical stimulation of specific spinal cord regions can enable patients to move their arm in ways that they could not do without the stimulation. Furthermore, they found that some of the improvements persisted even after the stimulation was switched off, suggesting exciting possibilities for future stroke therapies. The team has developed a practical and easy-to-use stimulation protocol that adapts existing FDA-approved clinical technologies and could be quickly implemented in hospitals.
Spinal cord stimulation technology involves placing a set of electrodes on the surface of the spinal cord to deliver pulses of electricity that activate nerve cells within the spinal cord. While this technology is already being used to treat persistent pain, previous research has shown that spinal cord stimulation can also restore movement to the legs following spinal cord injury.
In the recent study, spinal cord stimulation enabled participants to perform tasks of different complexity, from moving a hollow metal cylinder to grasping household objects like a can of soup and opening a lock. The clinical assessments showed that stimulation targeting cervical nerve roots immediately improved the strength, range of movement, and function of the arm and hand.
One of the most exciting findings was that the effects of stimulation were longer-lasting than anticipated, persisting even after the device was removed. The researchers believe that this indicates that spinal cord stimulation could be used as an assistive and restorative method for upper limb recovery. The immediate effects of the stimulation could enable individuals to engage in intensive physical training, leading to even stronger long-term improvements in the absence of stimulation.
In the future, the researchers plan to enroll additional trial participants to understand which stroke patients can benefit most from this therapy and how to optimize stimulation protocols for different severity levels. Their goal is to create effective neurorehabilitation solutions for people affected by movement impairment after stroke, which is becoming an increasingly urgent issue. Even mild deficits resulting from a stroke can have debilitating effects on a person’s social and professional life, with motor impairments in the arm and hand being especially taxing and impeding simple daily activities such as writing, eating, and getting dressed.