Four men who have been paralyzed for years are able to move again thanks to a revolutionary new treatment.
The treatment, called “epidural electrical stimulation of the spinal cord,” mimics signals the brain normally sends to initiate movement in the body.
In a landmark study, researchers applied the electrical stimulation to the paralyzed men, and all four developed movement.
And not just small movements.
In addition to wiggling their big toes, they can now lift and swing their legs, move their ankles and sit up without support. Two patients can even do situps, CNN reports.
"It was very exciting and emotional," Dustin Shillcox, 29, of Green River, Wyoming, told the AP. "It brought me a lot of hope."
Shillcox was seriously injured in a car crash in 2010.
Last year after having the electrical device surgically implanted in his lower back in Kentucky, he could wiggle his toes and move one of his feet for the first time.
According to the AP, Shillcox now practices moving his legs for about an hour a day at home in addition to therapy sessions in the lab, sometimes wearing a Superman T-shirt for inspiration. He says it has given him more confidence and he feels more comfortable going out.
Despite such dramatic improvements, experts caution the new treatment isn’t a cure.
Participants in the study are not able to walk, and still use wheelchairs to get around.
But lead study author Claudia Angeli, from the University of Louisville's Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center, says the results are promising:
"This is groundbreaking for the entire field and offers a new outlook that the spinal cord, even after a severe injury, has great potential for functional recovery."
The study, published in the Oxford University journal Brain, was conducted jointly by an international team researchers at the University of Louisville, UCLA and the Pavlov Institute of Physiology. The study was funded in part by the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.
This is not the first time electrical stimulation has made paralyzed patients move, but researchers say it is the first time electrical stimulation applied directly to the spinal cord has shown voluntary activity.
The treatment offers hope to the estimated six million Americans who are paralyzed.
In addition to being able to move again, study participants also experienced increases in muscle mass, regulation of their blood pressure, reduced fatigue and dramatic improvements to their sense of well-being, Healthline reports.
Dr. Angeli and her colleagues are optimistic the therapy intervention will continue to result in improved motor functions.
In fact, based on observations from the research, they say there is strong evidence that with continued advancements of the epidural stimulator, people with a complete spinal cord injury will eventually be able to bear weight independently, maintain balance and work towards stepping.
The Louisville researchers now have funding to implant the device in eight more patients.
They say hope a device company will help them come up with a way to stimulate more than one muscle group at the time.