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Electrical Stimulation For Paralysis

Jennifer French never imagined she'd be able to walk down the aisle on her wedding day, "I hit a patch of ice, and kissed a bunch of trees and ended up with a spinal cord injury."

Jen became a paraplegic after a tragic snowboarding accident. But now, she can stand and walk and says it's thanks to her bionic body, “To get up and move around, gives you an independence that you didn't have before," says Jen.

The marriage of biology and technology has allowed Jen to do things she never dreamed she'd be able to do again. WCBS TV’s Dr. Mike Rosen reports.

"We help these people regain their own function again," says Dr. Peckham of the F.E.S. Center.

At the Functional Electrical Stimulation Center in Cleveland, Dr. Peckham along with a team of scientists are creating revolutionary treatments. They are helping many spinal cord injury patients regain the ability to use their arms and legs.

"Imagine you use your hands your whole life and all of a sudden, that's gone, it's just gone!" A diving accident left Jim Jatich a quadriplegic, but because he has some residual function he can move his wrist up and down and sideways. This new technology allows him to harness what he has and then use additional muscles that have been previously paralyzed.

We're able to move our limbs and walk because electrical messages from our brain travel down the spinal cord to the nerves in the arms and legs that tell the muscles to contract.

With a spinal cord injury the messages can't get through. But, below the level of injury, nerves and muscles remain very much intact.

Because of this they can be stimulated.

Here's how the technology works:

Magnetic sensors were implanted in Jim's wrist bones which send signals through implanted wires in his arm, back up to a stimulator in his chest.

"It works like a pacemaker and the electrode leads are tunneled underneath the skin, down the length of his arm," says Ron Hart a Biomed engineer.

These electrical signals are then transmitted to a computer microprocessor on the side of his wheelchair. The computer responds by sending electrical signals via radio waves, which awaken the paralyzed muscles causing them to move.

This new technology will have limited benefit to the most severe spinal cord patients, like actor Christopher Reeve who broke his neck very high up.

But for Jim who's injury occurred slightly lower in the neck, he can now hold a spoon, drink from a soda can, even shop in a supermarket.

"Just to have your independence again it changes your life," says Jim.

Dr. Peckham believes that it will be a combination of this technology and stem cell research that we will one day conquers paralysis, "We can activate more muscles, we can provide more function as a result."

For Jennifer, she's already conquering. She's racing sailboats and is training for the Paraolympics, "I truly believe I won't be in this wheelchair for the rest of my life."

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