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Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center

There’s new hope for people who have had spinal cord injuries thanks in part to research into epidural stimulation at the University of Louisville.

“Spinal cord injury isn’t just about motor paralysis—not being able to walk,” says Dr. Susan Harkema, Rehabilitation Research Director at the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center. She explains that secondary effects of spinal cord injuries are classified into three areas.

“Movement, cardiovascular/respiratory, and bowel, bladder, and sexual function,” she says. “After a spinal cord injury, you lose all of those things. We learned from the courageous men and women who agreed to have epidural stimulators put in as pioneers that epidural stimulation positively affected all those areas.”

Epidural stimulation is done using an electrode that lies in the lower part of the spinal cord, right where a specific network of nerves is located.

“We’ve been able to use that stimulator and get the spinal cord back into a state where it can respond to the environment like it used to from tiny remaining signals that are still crossing the injury level,” says Dr. Harkema. “The other thing that we discovered is how the human spinal cord is also the integrator of communication of all your other systems. It talks to your heart and your gut and your bowel and your bladder. What we’ve been able to do with the stimulator is…get the communication going again.”

Rob Summers was paralyzed from the neck down after being hit by a car in his driveway. In December of 2009, he became the first human to receive an epidural stimulator. He says that the stimulator has allowed to live a much more normal life.

“By the third day of turning it on, I stood independently for the first time in over four years,” says Summers. “Instead of it taking two, three hours every morning to get ready to go do something, it is taking me 45 minutes.”

Stefanie Putnam is another participant who has benefitted from research at the Center.

“My life has changed with the epidural stimulator because we’ve been able to regulate my blood pressure,” she says. “I went pretty immediately from passing out six times a day to not passing out.”

The epidural stimulator has allowed Putnam to revive her dreams of becoming a competitive equestrian, now as a carriage driver instead of as a rider.

“I realized just because I’m different than how I used to be when I knew how to [work with horses], I didn’t have to avoid it and I could continue to be in love with everything that I loved before,” says Putnam. “Carriage driving made sense…We found out a way and approved it with the United States Equestrian Federation. I made up these cuffs that I put on my wrists and they attach to these carabiners on the reins and I mastered it. As I started moving forward, they started considering me as a potential equestrian that could represent the United States team abroad, and I was winning. I’m still winning.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2403, which originally aired on October 20, 2018. Watch the full episode.