Experimental device helps paralyzed man walk the length of four football fields

NEW YORK — Two studies out Monday point to significant progress in helping paralyzed people stand and take steps. A new treatment may provide new hope for the nearly 1.3 million Americans who have paralysis from spinal cord injuries.

In 2011, Jeff Marquis crashed his bike on a mountain trail in Montana, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. A once-active athlete and professional chef, Marquis needed constant care.

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Jeff Marquis was paralyzed in a biking accident. Jeff Marquis

But today Marquis can walk again, something people with paralysis can only imagine. He can do it because of a remarkable new experimental device, a type of electrical stimulator.

Spinal injuries disrupt nerve pathways that ordinarily allow the brain to signal the legs to move. In a study, doctors implanted an electrical stimulator at the base of the spine. When it's turned on, the electrical signals appear to awaken those injured nerve pathways, allowing the brain to communicate with the legs again.

Marquis, now 35, was one of four patients who spent months doing intensive physical training at the University of Louisville Spinal Cord Injury Research Center. He said first he got his right foot moving and then his left.

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An electrical stimulator at the base of the spine uses electrical signals that appear to awaken injured nerve pathways. CBS News

"It's certainly a welcome change from being in a chair all the time and kind of a ray of sunshine in my prognosis," Marquis said.

He walked the length of one football field without rest, and then almost a quarter of a mile over a one-hour session.

"It takes so much concentration that I don't get emotional in the moment," Marquis said. That is, until he told his parents.

"I showed them the video because I knew I wouldn't... because I couldn't get the words out," he said. 

"They're able to walk independently, its not the same as before the injury, but it's a significant level of recovery," said Susan Harkema, who directs the research.  

Marquis said he now has more energy and no longer needs daily help at home. Researchers now hope to perform larger studies with more patients. But this technology is still years away from wide scale use.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook