“Improved voluntary hand function occurred within a single session in every subject tested.”
That’s the killer sentence from a new study soon to be published in the Journal of Neurotrauma. The principal investigator is our old friend, Professor Reggie Edgerton, who has been looking for ways to help people with chronic spinal cord injury since the late 1960s. I’ve met him a number of times in my own efforts to get my head around the difficulty of restoring function. In the small, intense universe of SCI research, he’s a sort of godfather — having mentored and trained a great many of the students currently on the hunt for therapies.
Until the first epidural stimulators were implanted in volunteers back in 2009 and 2010, no substantial functional recovery was happening with chronic injuries. You got back what you got back in the first year or two post-injury, and then you lived with it. Even the breakthrough moments of trials involving different kinds of cells were questionable, because they were invariably aimed at people with very new injuries.
The epidural stimulation work that I covered in my last column originated in Edgerton’s lab, but his new study is about what his team has christened tEMC, short for transcutaneous enabled motor control, also called transcutaneous stimulation.
There is no surgery, nothing implanted, no wires snaking through the body to a device embedded under the flesh. Instead, there are a couple of electrodes taped right onto the skin, not unlike the functional electrical stimulation units a lot of people use to ride stim bikes. The difference is that FES units are designed to push current directly into targeted muscle groups, while tEMC units push current toward the spinal cord itself. In that way, tEMC is just like epistim, and like epistim, it seems to work — in the sense that people do regain volitional movement.
In the fall of 2016, Edgerton published a report based on this question: If putting a stimulator into the lower back epidural space results in voluntary movement of feet and legs, would putting one into the cervical area result in the same for hands and fingers? The report included this line: “Herein we show that epidural stimulation can be applied to the chronic injured human cervical spinal cord to promote volitional hand function.”
Volitional hand function means successfully willing the hand to move.