Significant Improvement in Arm and Hand Mobility for Stroke Patients with Breakthrough Spinal Cord Stimulation Technology

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Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have designed a neurotechnology that changes the game for people with moderate to severe stroke. This new technology stimulates the spinal cord to instantly enhance their arm and hand mobility, thereby enabling them to conduct daily activities smoothly. The tech involves a pair of thin metal electrodes that are implanted along the neck. These electrodes engage with the intact neural circuits, allowing the user to fully open and close their fist, raise their arm above their head, or use a fork and knife.

In the case of conditions like stroke, medical experts prepare the patients for a bleak life ahead. Statistics show that one in every four adults over 25 will suffer a stroke during their lifetime, and among them, around 75% are sure to have lasting deficits in motor control of their arms and hand. 

Even though stroke is a severe threat to an individual’s physical autonomy, there are no effective treatments for the effects of stroke as of now. Especially for treating paralysis in the chronic stage of stroke, which begins approximately six months after the stroke, the prospects for effective treatment are next to nothing. However, the new spinal cord stimulation technology has the potential to offer hope for people living with impairments that would otherwise be considered permanent.

Elvira Pirondini, PhD, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Pitt, says that creating effective neurorehabilitation solutions, especially for those with movement impairment after stroke, is urgently increasing. It is evident that even mild deficits from a stroke can drastically impact people’s social and professional lives and be debilitating, with simple daily activities such as eating or getting dressed becoming taxing.

The new spinal cord stimulation technology results from years of extensive preclinical studies involving computer modelling and animal testing in macaque monkeys with partial arm paralysis. While translating the tech for human use, the trickier parts of human anatomy needed extra attention. For instance, the unique dexterity of the human hand, combined with the wide range of motion of the arm at the shoulder and the complexity of the neural signals controlling the arm and hand, add a significantly higher set of challenges. Furthermore, research groups across the world have discovered that spinal cord stimulation can restore movement to the legs after a spinal injury. 

Through a series of tests adapted to each patient, the researchers have found that the stimulation has enabled the participants to perform various activities of different complexities. Clinical assessments showed that stimulation targeting cervical nerve roots immediately improves strength, range of movement and function of the arm and hand. In an unexpected turn of events, the effects of the stimulation seem to last longer than what was estimated by the scientists. This suggests that the tech has an unexplored set of benefits that can make it both an assistive and a restorative solution in post-stroke rehabilitation.

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